Ajax dragged the Awakened off his unconscious father and out of his bedroom. It fought him, and his grip was uncertain, but he manhandled it down the hall. The substance of the Awakened seemed to change under his hands: sometimes it was cold flesh under slithery skin, and sometimes it was like trying to squeeze a sack full of hot gel. Only with concentration could he resist an instinctive desire to pull his hands away.
He dragged it into his room and over the ruin of his wall. Outside, Descry was taunting Seth, while still holding a broken-looking Natalie. “Such a cold and careless Guardian. Oh, you know it. You don’t belong with them, you or the most talented Boything. Cold and hot, I’ll take the pair.”
The Awakened had herded three children together, drooling on their semiconscious forms. Ajax’s own Awakened surged and twisted, panicking as it was dragged closer to Descry. Ajax’s arms and chest bled from dozens of tears and scratches.
“What about her?” said Seth. The bastard was still smiling, as if this was all a game to him.
Descry shook Natalie, still holding her sword hand tight with the rest of her nestled against his huge body. “I do not think she will forgive you, so I will let her live. It will be such entertainment! I think she will break, and hunt you, and break again. The broken are so charming.”
Ajax looked between Seth and Descry, agonizing. Seth didn’t even seem to noticed the kids.
Descry continued, “Let’s end it now.”
The Awakened penning the children attacked.
Ajax shouted in frustration, released the Awakened he was holding, and dived across the street into the tangle of monsters. Passing through the mass of Awakened Darkness felt like being pierced by a thousand needles. But he couldn’t easily hit them, and so they couldn’t really stop him. He curled his body around the children, doing his best to shield all three of them from the fangs and teeth and tentacles of the monsters.
The Awakened fell back, shying away from attacking Ajax. Descry growled. Seth started laughing and Descry’s growl became a roar.
“You laugh, Guardian,” and Descry shook Natalie again. Her empty hand, previously wedged between her body and Descry’s, fell free. “Seedlings, end them all—”
Natalie opened her eyes and twisted in Descry’s grasp. The sword in her captured sword hand vanished.
And reappeared in her other hand, now free, now moving. It barely had time to gleam before she buried the sword to the hilt in Descry’s torso, slicing up, nearly bisecting the monster’s upper body. “I just needed to catch my breath. A break is not being broken.” She kicked Descry, hard.
Descry had just enough time for shock to pass across the big baboon face, before the monster dissolved into a flood of dark liquid. Color leeched out of the Awakened clustered around Ajax. As it did, they went wild, turning on each other and on Ajax.
A moment later, Seth was there, slashing and kicking. The disorganized and maddened Awakened scattered before him, and Seth gave Ajax a friendly nod before chasing down one of the fleeing Awakened.
Slowly, Ajax uncurled from around the three children. All of them whimpered, staring around with dazed, uncomprehending eyes. “Go home,” he said to the older two. He picked up the smallest and carried her to the window she’d emerged from, unceremoniously shoving her back inside again and closing the window behind her.
When he turned around, the two children were still in the middle of the street, but seemed on their way to at least waking up properly. A low fog rose from the street— not uncommon at night, but this time Ajax was sure it came from the sublimating remains of the Awakened.
Seth skated up the street and skidded to a halt on the edge of the puddle that was all that remained of Descry. Natalie was sprawled in the middle of it, as if her legs had given way beneath her.
“You look like hell,” said Seth, grinning.
“I feel like hell. Seth, what in the world were you doing?”
“Distracting him until you could get your breath back. What did it look like I was doing?” Even from down the street, Seth radiated innocence. “Oh, new guy. I got the one who was going after your dad.”
Ajax nodded sharply, still furious with the other boy. It was hard to trust anything he said with that little smile. He walked over to the two remaining children. The younger turned and scampered away as he approached.
Natalie said to Seth, “Are you hurt?”
“Maybe a little,” Seth admitted. “There were a lot of them. The Council isn’t going to believe this.”
“What happened?” said the remaining little boy. He lived three houses down, and he’d been born shortly before Ajax’s mother had died. Ajax and his mother had visited the new parents, and Ajax had held the newborn and thought of his own unborn sibling. But he didn’t remember the boy’s name.
“Nothing. This is a bad dream. Get on home before it gets worse.”
The nameless child pointed. “What happened to him?”
Ajax didn’t look.
“Nothing. Look, kid, don’t make me carry you home.”
“Is he sleeping?” The child’s eyes widened. “Is he dead?”
“Go home right now,” shouted Ajax.
The child jumped backward, and stared up at Ajax with terrified eyes. Seth limped past Ajax and put his hand out. “Come on, kid. I’ll take you home. If you’re good, I might even show you how I got rid of all those monsters.”
Still staring at Ajax, the boy let Seth guide him away. Ajax watched them go, unseeing. Then, drawing a deep breath, he turned around.
The monsters were puddles on the street, mist in the night. But Leo was solid and real on the pavement. No, not Leo. Leo’s body.
Drawn unwillingly, Ajax approached and stared down at it, willing Leo to wake up. If Leo came back to life, this could all be Ajax’s bad dream, too.
“Oh my God, Leo! What did you do to Leo?”
Ajax’s father, Jim, stood at the hole in Ajax’s wall, fully awake and completely aghast.