Ajax leaned against a wall, looking out the window to the orchard.
“They’ve left, Ajax,” said Elian.
“Why are you telling me?”
“I know you want to come haunt the Portalry,” said Elian. His voice contained a compassion Ajax didn’t like hearing.
“It’s not a big deal.”
But after a few moments, he wandered back to the Portalry, all the same. While the troop of echthroi-hunters had departed, the Portalry still had plenty of people. Both of Natalie’s parents were there, standing with an older woman who looked like she’d been crying a lot. One of the teachers, Evelina, sat in an armchair, knitting furiously, with three of her students clustered near her.
Ajax drifted along the portal installations, toward the ingress location, wondering how long it would take them to get into trouble, and if he wanted to be here when they returned. Natalie had made it clear she agreed with him that spending time together was a bad idea, and now he couldn’t decide if he wanted to convince her they were both wrong.
“Uh-oh. There’s an incoming activation signal,” said Elian. “It’s Aya’s latchkey.”
Silence swallowed the murmurs of the hall. Even the clicking of the knitting needles stilled. The weeping woman with Natalie’s parents cried, “Well? Open it!”
“I—” began Elian.
“Open it,” said Ajax. He let the tension of the moment fall into his hand and his stage 2 weapon manifested. He still couldn’t summon it when he was calm, but this was much better than only being able to summon it while calm. The bar of light felt solid and powerful in his hand.
“Opening the portal.”
The ingress installation glowed and rippled. Then the substance of the portal parted around a form. It was a man, smaller than Ajax, with a bald scalp decorated with geometric shapes. He wore clothes that looked like they’d been ripped from a rack somewhere without consideration for style or size; the long-sleeved dress shirt still had a tag on despite the great rents in the left side. He hadn’t shaven in days, but part of his beard looked to have been burned. His eyes were shining. In one hand, he held a morning star; in the other, the latchkey. A creature that looked like nothing so much a as a dire wolverine with spikes along the back lurked at his side.
Not young, not Malachi. The other one. Tainter.
“Oooh, it worked!” A big smile curved Tainter’s mouth. “What fun.”
Ajax pointed his bar of light at Tainter. “Get out.”
Tainter stepped forward and looked around. “We’re in the henhouse now, Rend, my boy. Oops!” He giggled.
Ajax didn’t wait. Elian was maintaining the ingress portal. The invaders were still getting their bearings. He rushed them, spreading his arms low and wide to catch the cambion with his fist and weapon as his shoulder struck Tainter. His size and momentum carried all three of them back through the portal again.
As they fell through the void, Tainter shifted underneath him. When they emerged on the other side, still moving, Ajax sprang to one side just in time to avoid Tainter’s weapon.
Tainter laughed. “Fancy dancing!” He darted at Ajax again, and Ajax caught his advance on his own weapon this time, shoving him backwards. As Tainter stumbled, Ajax tried to figure out where the cambion had gone. The experimental energy filled him, but he had no time to explore it. Tainter came in low, and the cambion came out of nowhere on his other side. Ajax kicked the wolverine in the snout and pushed Tainter between the two of them. Then he let Tainter go and ran, opening up enough distance between them so that he could get his own bearings.
It was a city street. He was in front of a skeletal half-completed high-rise construction, covered in graffiti that suggested nobody had cared about finishing it for months or years. Cars lined the curb, some of which contained sleeping occupants. Across the street was a run-down brownstone. It looked like further down the street was also further downtown.
Tainter grinned fiercely and moved after Ajax. Ajax hesitated just a moment, tempted by the cinematic half-completed high-rise. But he didn’t think the energy rushing through him would let him fly. He took off down the street instead, rounded a corner, and ducked behind a car. When Tainter leapt around the corner, moving like he had springs in his shoes, Ajax tackled him, tried to bang his head into the ground, and got an elbow in his own solar plexus instead. He rolled away, stumbled to his feet, and Tainter knocked him down again, bringing his weapon around. A thick spike caught in Ajax’s shirt and tore it, slicing a thin line into his skin. Ajax pushed hard and twisted backward at the same time. He mis-estimated the amount of force at his disposal and for a moment his vision was all stars and darkness. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again.
He was on the pavement, staring at a black combat boot with a dark trouser leg blousing out. A moment later, the long, thin muzzle of an extremely military-looking gun descended to introduce itself to him.
Ajax sat up in a hurry.
“Don’t move,” barked the man behind the gun, his voice distorted by the mask covering his face. Five of his brothers also had guns leveled at both Ajax and Tainter.
Ajax didn’t move. Tainter, on the other hand, laughed so hard he choked, then leapt straight into the air. Ajax wasn’t moving so he didn’t see exactly how the echthros vanished, but he imagined it involved balconies and rooftops. Two of the soldiers fired after Tainter, and Ajax, still trying to find his stolen breath, was intensely grateful the guns were pointed high when they clattered.
One of the soldiers spoke into a radio, describing Tainter’s flight. The first one said, “Toss your weapon away.”
Ajax realized he was still holding his stage 2 weapon. He could see a line of red along the glow, and wondered when he’d managed to catch Tainter.
“Your weapon, now!”
“I can’t.” He mimed a tossing motion and the weapon vanished. Then, hastily, he raised both hands over his head, his palms open. This seemed to satisfy them, for the moment.
“Keep your hands up. Who was that?” was the next demand.
“An enemy. Can I stand up?”
“An enemy,” sneered the soldier. “No shit. On your feet.” He lowered his gun an inch or two, though and most of the others followed suit. “What are you doing running around? Why aren’t you incapacitated?”
“I don’t know. Why aren’t you?”
“Willpower. Training. A little speed. These fucking masks aren’t doing a damn thing except getting in the way, that’s for sure.” The speaker pulled his mask off and tossed it aside. He looked like the protagonist of a dozen video games, with eyes like he’d tapdanced over Hell. “You know anything about what’s going on here? And don’t lie, because we have your godddamned light saber on video.”
Ajax let his gaze slide around the street, and realized Awakened were prowling around the squad, attention focused outward, away from the squad. He wondered what kind of ‘training’ the soldiers had been given. A moment later, as an Awakened bumped against a soldier’s leg, he realized that they couldn’t see the creatures, didn’t know they were there. Wonder blossomed, prompting him into openness.
“I know there’s a weapon. A device? I don’t know. And I think… I think it makes people who are immune to it really… fast and strong.”
“Like you’re immune to it.”
“Yes,” Ajax admitted. That brought the barrels of the guns back up again. He kept his hands in the air and stayed very still.
“What about the monsters?”
“Monsters?” If they weren’t seeing the Awakened, that meant they’d seen cambions. “What are they like?”
Another soldier said, “Horrible things, nearly unkillable.” He shuddered.
The leader said, “They— they undo years of discipline. You don’t know them?”
“I know them a little. Ah… that’s what my weapon is for. Fighting those things.” And in the back of his head, Ajax thought: The Tower already thinks I’m a traitor. But I think these people are going to get killed. What would happen if we just luminated all of them? Does the Tower know about how Awakened act around them?
For the first time, something other than determination and anger flickered in the leader’s face. “Yeah?”
“Corp, Squad Charlie’s spotted another….” said the radio guy.
“Right,” said the corporal. “You’re coming with us, kid. I hope, for your sake and ours, you’re telling the truth.”