In the fight, Natalie tried to stay near Hatherly and Jehane. She didn’t want to miss the smallest opportunity to get Jehane away from the bastard. But how she’d manage it she didn’t know. Malachi and Aya stood outside the fight with the monsters but they were clearly obeying Hatherly.
Now, perched in the stillness between battle and boom, she found a trickle of sympathy inside. Not just for Aya, or poor Laurel, but even for Malachi. He was a murderer, but what had been done to him to make him into that?
Then a memory tickled. Hatherly, at the meeting where they’d first discussed Malachi. He’d been sympathetic to Malachi, even then. How could that even be possible? She stared at him, trying to see a monster in his face. It was absolutely terrifying how much he just seemed like Hatherly, the legendary senior Nightlight, the seminar teacher, the mentor to half of the younger adults in the Tower. Just Hatherly, holding Jehane so painfully she cried, and a sword still crimson with Laurel’s blood.
“Woohoo!” came an unpleasantly familiar voice. Tainter jumped off the side of one of the buildings and landed near Hatherly, spinning and skidding, then catching himself around one of the poles set up for the building’s opening day celebration. He came to a halt facing the Tanist.
“So you’re the leader lady. I saw a picture,” he confided. “So afraid of everything.”
“Lyman, attend to Gate, please. We would like to leave now.” Hatherly surveyed the Guardians. “I wouldn’t want things to get out of hand.”
But Tainter kept looking at the Tanist, as if she fascinated him. The Tanist said, “Who the hell are you?”
“Oh, I’m God. No? How about Legion, then?”
Disgust twisted the Tanist’s face. “Are there more of you?”
Tainter giggled. “Does that frighten you? That you’re not special anymore? My friends are watching. Maybe they’ll work out how to be special, too. And then we’ll all be as pretty and talented as…” Tainter’s pointing finger wavered, then settled on Natalie. “As that one!”
The Tanist looked between Tainter and Hatherly, as if puzzled. “How did you meet?” Natalie wondered if she was trying to distract them long enough that the missile took them all out. That didn’t seem like her at all, though. She was barely paying attention to the soldiers, except as a sign of Ajax’s treachery.
Malachi said, in the voice of a dead man, “Tainter.”
“Oh, right,” said Tainter. “Righto. Just give me a minute, boss-man.” He sprang around like he was on a pogo stick. It was frightening how much he seemed to have naturalized the strength and speed brought on by the experimental device. For Natalie, it was like an external cloak she had to learn to move with and avoid tripping over, but Tainter moved like it was a natural ability restored to him.
Seth moved lightly, brushing past Natalie. “No, don’t,” said Hatherly. “You’ll get to live if you just stay still and wait.”
Seth obediently froze. Natalie turned to look at him, and beyond him saw Ajax looking intently at the two of them. When she met his gaze, his eyes darted toward Jehane and Hatherly, and he lowered his chin in a subtle nod. She understood. He was going to start something to get Jehane back, and he wanted her to be prepared.
Tainter landed in front of the two cambions that Malachi and Aya were protecting. He started poking one of them, like he was tickling a pet. “That,” breathed Natalie, just for Seth to hear. “We go after that.”
Something beeped and a startled ripple passed through the humans. How much time had passed? Natalie wasn’t the only one who looked intently at the soldiers.
“Four minutes left,” said Seth. “According to my count.”
But the soldiers were shifting, bringing their guns up. Nobody was going to sit and wait.
“I said I didn’t want things to get out of hand,” said Hatherly sharply. “Hold them, Lyman.”
Tainter pressed his hand against one of the metallic cubes emerging from the back of the cambion called Gate. And the experiment field changed. It was like a shift in the sound of a background noise that Natalie had never noticed before. It channeled strength and energy before, and that was still there, but now it channeled something else, too.
A sick, sourceless horror unfolded in Natalie’s gut. They couldn’t succeed. Everything they’d done so far was nothing but the struggles of a dying animal, too wild to understand the truth. She looked around wildly. The people around her were eggs, rotten eggs, and the darkness that shaped itself into monsters seeped from their fractured shells.
Then it seemed to her that the sun in the sky was watching her, personally, and that the shadow she cast on the ground was the truth of her existence. This flesh, this hand in front of her was nothing more than the fevered imaginings of something that wanted to be more than a blip in the light.
She did. She did want to be more. And the very nature of that desire was a magic to balance the despair, if she could only hang onto it.
Natalie dragged in a painful breath and looked from her hand to Seth. His smile was so broad that it seemed to be tearing his face, and his gaze was fixed on Hatherly. Out of her line of sight, someone whimpered, and someone else said, “No, no, no…”
Then the Tanist strode forward, eyes wild, blood streaming from her palms. She was angled directly toward Hatherly and Jehane, but Malachi moved forward smoothly. She didn’t seem to even notice him until he knocked her down so hard that she skidded backward in a heap. She screamed in fury.
Ajax said, “Cool trick, man. I think I’ll check out how you did it.” And, scythe in hand, he moved.