The change in the experiment field came to Ajax as a taste change, like he’d bitten into a despair-and-madness flavored jellybean. But he didn’t have to swallow it. He found he could hold it just outside himself, dancing on his skin and the edge of his weapon. He wasn’t sure anybody else was managing that. Rose sobbed into her hands, and one of the older boys whimpered, eyes closed. But Natalie’s gaze had moved from Jehane to Tainter and the machine-cambion.
Now wasn’t the moment he’d hoped for but he didn’t think it was going to get any better. He lowered his head and let the strength carried by the field channel into him. “Cool trick, man. I think I’ll check out how you did it.” And he sprang, moving like Tainter, as fast and hard as he could push himself.
He was on Hatherly before Hatherly could blink. The older man flinched, just a little, and his long sword moved. But Ajax didn’t wait. He yanked on Jehane as hard as he could, ignoring her keen of agony, dragging her out of Hatherly’s grip. Many, many things were worse than a dislocated arm. He flung her over his shoulder like she was a rag doll, as far toward the Nightlights as he could, and hoped she’d land all right. Then, he threw himself to the ground to avoid the sweep of Hatherly’s sword.
The blade seemed far longer than he remembered from Hatherly’s demonstration, so long ago, with its glyph glimmering in the sunshine. It followed him as he rolled, and he sprang to his feet, using the scythe to block it.
“Clumsy,” said Hatherly. But then Ajax wasn’t alone. Apparently the Nightlights were better than he expected at shaking off despair. For a moment, Ajax thought to fall back, let the experts handle the rogue Guardian. But that was before he saw Hatherly’s long blade shear right through Rose’s sword to slice across her chest. The remains of the blade vanished from her hand and she fell back, eyes wide with shock. A few heartbeats later, Hatherly reversed his blade and put it through Savannah’s shoulder as she maneuvered behind him, the blade visibly growing to cross the two yards.
Kotone stood between Aya and Rose, while Jehane, panting and pale, applied pressure to the slice across Rose’s chest. Malachi fought both the Tanist and Kwan as if executing steps in a training exercise.
Ajax darted forward, trying to take advantage of Hatherly’s sword being reversed and stuck in Savannah. But when he brought the scythe around, there was Hatherly’s sword. The two weapon locked together, buzzing. Hatherly did something, and the pressure on Ajax’s weapon increased. The buzzing reached into Ajax’s mind and blackness flashed across his vision. But he maintained the scythe in his hands, the hard edge of his anima, and kicked out to knock himself free.
“Nice weapon,” said Hatherly.
Behind him, Seth fought Tainter silently. He sliced across Tainter’s hip. Tainter screamed like a child, and Hatherly started to turn. Ajax couldn’t allow that. He propelled himself at Hatherly yet again, this time trying to knock the smaller man down with brute force. Hatherly dodged him, but Ajax caught his arm as he passed and they both whirled around before breaking free.
Hatherly seemed to forget Tainter. “You’re much stronger than the rest of them. And they don’t value you. What are you fighting for?”
“What the hell? I’m fighting to win.” Ajax circled Hatherly, looking for anything that resembled an opening.
Hatherly laughed. “Idiot boy. It takes more than strength to win. You’re at least twenty years behind times if you want to win against me.” He watched Ajax. “But if you come with me, you might get a chance to win against one of the others.”
Ajax swung once, twice, and Hatherly blocked him both times. Then Tainter screamed again, and Hatherly looked over Ajax’s shoulder. Ajax launched a flurry of attacks to take advantage of Hatherly’s distraction.
A flurry of attacks intended to take advantage of Hatherly’s distraction. But as soon as he closed, Hatherly whirled around and kicked him in the chest so hard that both breath and sight vanished. He crumpled to the ground like a tent with the poles removed.
“As I said, weapon strength isn’t everything, boy.”
Ajax’s vision cleared. He lay on the ground, feeling like he was floating. All he could do was wait for his breath to come back. He wondered if his heart was beating.
Oh, there it was.
He forced air into his lungs. It hurt, but there was a fierce joy as well. Natalie was on the back of the machine-cambion, slicing into the tubing and cubes as Seth used his blades to keep it too crazed to fight back. Tainter half-lay on the ground, watching them, bleeding, and giggling.
Seth and Natalie looked almost as beat up as Ajax, still gasping, felt. Hatherly moved towards them, his sword growing, his face cold. But as he did, the machine-cambion stumbled and fell to its knees. The experiment field vanished.