The experiment field vanished, and it was like Jehane’s ears popped. Suddenly she could hear what she hadn’t noticed she lost, and it was a palpable relief. The pain of her bruises and wrenched arm intensified with the vanished pressure. But she’d landed better than she might have, because Ajax had thrown her so far she could get her feet under her.
Cautiously, she stood up, but she was the only one. The other Guardians had been flattened like they’d been hit by a giant hammer. They’d all been drawing on the field to fight, while she was incapacitated, and soon as it turned off, they lost everything they’d been running on. Even the soldiers seemed startled by the change. Two of them had been taken down in the second half of the battle and the others looked around like they had just woken up from a nightmare.
The echthroi mostly stood. Malachi leaned on his sword, panting, and Tainter climbed to his feet, clutching at his side. Aya was on her knees, staring blankly at the ground. Hatherly alone seemed utterly unaffected. He glared around at the human wreckage around him, as if displeased by the answers provided by a recalcitrant student. And when he strode over to the cambion he called Gate, his movements seemed inhumanly fluid, as if he was part cambion himself.
“Gate, patience,” he said. Although the field had gone down, the cambion still lived. It shook Natalie off its back, then lunged at her, ignoring Hatherly. She raised her sword in a weak defense, just enough to keep it from overrunning her.
Seth pushed himself up from his knees and made as if to join Natalie. Hatherly’s hand came down on Seth’s shoulder, spinning the boy around. Then he slammed one hand into Seth’s face and another into his abdomen. Without a sound, Seth slid to the ground. Hatherly looked down at him, then kicked him viciously.
Jehane stumbled forward. “No! Stop it!” Then a hand closed over her leg, and she tripped. When she used her hands to catch herself, she screamed as her damaged arm took the weight. She rolled on her back and saw the Tanist, her hand still wrapped around Jehane’s leg, shaking her head. Jehane kicked out, her booted foot scraping the Tanist’s hand off her, then scrambled to her feet again.
“Gate, be still,” said Hatherly again, and this time he raised his voice. The cambion immediately froze, one clawed foot over Natalie, then cowered. Sobbing, Natalie ducked away from it and crawled toward Seth. Hatherly watched her, an odd expression on his face. Then he looked at Jehane.
Jehane shrank back from meeting his eyes. Her gaze found Malachi instead, who was also watching her. Jehane realized that he wasn’t going to let her return to Hatherly either, and he was prepared to do more than trip her and hold her leg.
They were all so focused. The echthroi had won, Jehane realized. The Guardians might have disabled the machine part of the cambion, whatever was generating the energy field, but they were all little more than a bed in the infirmary now, while Hatherly was walking, talking, and making decisions.
“Boss?” said Tainter. “I don’t wanna make a big deal or anything but it’d be great to get out of here. You know how it is.” He raised a scarlet hand. Then, glancing at it, he brightened. “But if we’re not going to leave, I could—”
“Hush. I’m thinking.”
Natalie reached Seth, and put his head in her lap, stroking his hair and whispering to him. Tears streaked her face. Hatherly continued watching her, occasionally looking back at Jehane.
Jehane bit her lip, then darted over to Ajax, who was still conscious and breathing shallowly. She started inspecting him closely for any way she could help, determinedly not looking up at Hatherly.
Ajax mumbled, “Sorry about throwing you.”
“Shut up.” She risked a look up at Hatherly. He was still just standing there, as if transfixed.
A radio chattered. One of the soldiers slowly walked forward, his gun trained on Hatherly. His voice not quite steady, he said, “Let the weapons go and put your hands in the air. There are a bunch of people who want to talk to you.”
That seemed to shake Hatherly out of his reverie. “Oh, please,” he said. He darted toward Seth and Natalie.
Almost as fast, Natalie was on her feet, her sword out. “You stay away from him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Hatherly, and as he closed on her, she paled. Her shadow music almost vanished under the clash of Hatherly’s own music and she fell to her knees, her weapon vanishing.
“Please,” she whispered. “Leave him alone.”
But Hatherly picked up Seth and, turning gracefully, hurled him directly at the soldier with the gun. The soldier barely had a chance to react, letting his gun sag and bringing his hands up to block or break Seth’s boneless tumble. They landed in a heap.
Hatherly hauled Natalie up by her arm. “Why would I want him? He’s a cold, self-centered brat. He makes me sick, just like the rest of them. But you.” He smiled. “You were always kind. And very responsible. I noticed. I think I’ve got something with you. Something I hadn’t expected.” He lowered his voice confidingly. “I wish the world was a different place sometimes, don’t you? Yes? Oh, good.” He raised his voice. “To me, my children. Surge, it’s time.”
The remaining cambions closed on them. Tainter crawled over, like a dog, and Malachi heaved Aya to her feet and helped her to Hatherly’s side. Then Hatherly began to glow. His form seemed to ripple, like he was a reflection in water. Then a cambion passed into him, and another. Tainter giggled, and walked through him. Malachi and Aya ducked into his outline.
Ajax started scrabbling on the ground, as if trying to stand up. He fell down, his eyes half-closed, his breath gasping. Jehane put her hand on his shoulder as she tried to understand what she was seeing. Hatherly had turned himself into a portal. His face was stretched in pleasure or pain, and he held Natalie in one hand as if she was a trophy. She was limp enough to be a rag doll.
Then he pulled Natalie to him in an embrace, and the light radiating from him grew brighter and brighter.
When it faded, he was gone, and Natalie was gone with him.