Illumination 5.4: The Quick

“Their experiment feels like being drunk on adrenalin. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to lose control.” Natalie faced the small army that had materialized in front of the portal to Detroit in response to Elian’s announcement. “And it takes a while to figure out how to use your body again. I didn’t spend that time, and I regretted it. And the more you use the new strength, the more exhausted you are when it goes away.” Her gaze ran over the faces in the crowd. The Tanist was there, absolutely refusing to be left behind. Savannah the Prowler and her teammate Mac. Seth and Jehane. Rose and Kotone. Kwan and Laurel and Hatherly. Darby and Xu Ming, whom Seth had spent his novitiate with. The air sizzled with excitement. After days and days of reacting and waiting, everybody was eager to finally do something proactive.

Natalie was pretty sure that eagerness would get them into trouble. The field that enveloped Detroit took eagerness and turned it into disaster.

She raised her gaze higher and saw Ajax lingering at the door at the other end of the Portalry. As soon as he met her gaze, he raised two fingers to his brow in a casual salute, then vanished. Mild annoyance whispered: he wasn’t even going to see them off?

But she didn’t care. She didn’t care.

At a word from the Tanist, the rough crew piled through the portal to Detroit, as fast as possible. Natalie was pretty sure there wasn’t going to be a repeat of the last time they’d gone after the echthroi; she’d checked the transmitter herself while waiting for the crew to assemble. But nobody could be sure, so anybody who wanted some action pushed.

The experiment zone was in full effect on the other side, and Darby immediately leapt into the air, calling, “Wheee! This is sweet!” as he landed on an awning. Then he overbalanced and tumbled off to land in a heap. “I’m fine!”

The Tanist inhaled deeply, as if breathing something fine. “This is… amazing. I feel young again.”

“Yes, yes. Ma’am.” said Natalie. “But we don’t know how long it will last. If we’re going to find them, we have to move quickly. Jehane, lead us.”

Jehane, her face pale and drawn, nodded. She’d barely rested the past three days, but Seth believed she’d hold up and Natalie trusted Seth.

A spring dawn brightened the eastern sky as they moved across downtown, but the roads hadn’t yet become crowded with morning traffic when the experiment hit. Now, they seemed desolate. A few cars sat at stop lights, unmoving, their drivers slumped over the wheels. They passed a wreck embedded in a storefront. Somebody had extracted the driver and the passenger and laid them side by side a few yards away from the accident, their wounds untended. The distant smell of something burning wove around the ordinary smells of the city. A bus had jackknifed at an intersection, stopping just short of a sedan that had rolled into the middle of the crossing. Some of the passengers of the bus had disembarked before giving into their drowsiness.

In the distance, a siren rose and faded away. “Not everybody’s succumbed,” said Seth quietly. “I’ll keep an eye on Kiley.” He slipped back to pace beside the Tanist.

A moment later, Kwan said, “Everybody, down. Be asleep, now. Guns under cars.” Natalie slumped behind a car, as did most of everybody else. Seth tugged the Tanist down.

A group of people appeared from the midst of the stalled cars, heavily armed and armored, including full masks. They moved forward carefully, like a single creature stalking new territory. The intermittent buzz of radio communication accompanied them.

It wasn’t the only thing. Awakened prowled alongside them, flanking them, not attacking them.

The squad of Special Forces worked their way up the street, pausing once to inspect the cars involved in another accident before moving on. When they were out of sight beyond an abandoned building, Kwan belly-crawled to the center of the group. “This is bad.”

Darby said, “We just avoid them. Maybe we can move on the roofs.” He flashed a brilliant grin.

Xu Ming shook his head. “Worst thing to do. You can bet those guys have air or even satellite support.”

“You mean they can see us?”

Kwan said, “Could be. As long as we’re careful and we don’t wave guns around, whoever’s looking at the pictures is probably going to be focusing on other details.”

“Yes,” said Jehane quietly. “There’s a lot of cambions around. At least nine.”

“That’s fantastic,” said the Tanist bitterly. “Monsters, caught on camera. What are the military types doing here?”

“Trying to find out why the city is asleep, I imagine,” said Kwan, an edge in his voice.

“They’re going to get in our way. And what the hell are those Awakened beside them? We have to find the echthroi before they do.”

“The echthroi have already split up,” said Jehane.

“Take us to Malachi, then,” ordered the Tanist. She stood.

Jehane looked down, then began to creep alongside the cars. Two streets over, they came upon another Special Forces team.

They heard the gunfire first, and the shouting. The squad was fighting a six-legged cambion half-composed of oily smoke. Their bullets slammed into it, tearing away pieces of its substance, but not doing much to slow it down. One of the squad was already down, and as the Guardians looked around the bus, another one fell to a great hooking claw.

“They need help,” said Natalie, not bothering to keep her voice down.

“They’ve got plenty,” snapped the Tanist. “Look.”

There were Awakened attacking the cambion, and fighting some of the cambion’s own entourage. It was astonishing. The squad didn’t even seem to be aware of their invisible allies, and Natalie couldn’t imagine how it was possible. And yet it was.

But it wasn’t enough. The squad’s allied Awakened weren’t as powerful as the cambion’s own Awakened.

“We’ll be right back,” said Natalie, and leapt around the bus, letting the force manifested by the experiment fill her. Seth followed her, and Darby, and finally Xu Ming. The cambion, damaged and distracted, had no chance. Natalie wasn’t sure what its weak point had been, but under the onslaught of four stage 3 weapons, it collapsed.

The squad was less than grateful. Scarcely had the monster collapsed than the remaining soldiers had guns pointed at the Nightlights.

“Jump,” said Natalie.

And the squad was tired. However they were staying awake, it hurt their reactions, especially when faced with an unexpected pack of teenagers. There was a rattling of gunfire as Natalie flipped herself to the top of the bus and her companions vanished to rooftops.

The gunfire stopped, and she paused, too, flattening herself on top of the bus. One of the soldiers wrenched his mask off and shouted, “What the hell are you?”

Natalie wished she could answer, but what could she say? She met the soldier’s eyes for a moment, then jumped away.

The rest of the Guardians had moved on while Natalie’s crew distracted the soldiers. Natalie jogged up to the back of the pack and slipped in. Seth was already there, and she’d seen the other guys on a rooftop as she caught up. The Tanist strode along at the front, as if she knew where they were going.

“I just want to know we’re going to Aya. We are, aren’t we?” Laurel paced alongside Jehane, in the middle of the pack. “You could show me on a map and I could go get her. Move her someplace safe before the fighting starts.”

Jehane shook her head. “She’s where we’re going. But—”

“What?” asked Natalie.

“Tainter’s vanished.”

“What does that mean?”

“Um… since he wasn’t near the limits of my range, I think he went through a portal.” She glanced at the front of the group. “Should I tell the Tanist?”

Hatherly, walking on Jehane’s other side, said, “No. That would just distract her, just as she’s doing her best. Best to avoid that, don’t you think?” And he smiled, thin and old and empty.

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