So, Ajax. If we’d found him earlier, things might have been different. Instead, he’s so screwed up he’s facing front again, and convinced that all he had to worry about was the absolute wrong things. He’s dangerous all right, but the question is, is he more dangerous to us? Or himself?
Natalie sat in a bed in the Tower infirmary, staring straight ahead. Her father, Jake Ward, worked on his tablet while leaning against the nearby bed Seth had just escaped from. They hadn’t brought Ajax to the infirmary, even though Natalie had insisted he needed medical attention as well. Instead they’d taken him straight to a private room for a quarantined interview.
Jake looked up and flashed a quick smile at Natalie. “Is the painkiller finally kicking in?”
Natalie half-shrugged. The big pills the doctor had given her had smoothed the sharp pain in her ribcage and the ache of her arm to dull, distant twinge. But she couldn’t get the memory of Ajax’s face out of her mind: his startled expression and growing anger as he’d been hustled out of the Portalry by a crowd of brusque and efficient adults. It was more like a police booking than a debut at a magical high school.
Dr. Pepperman, working on his own tablet at his desk in the corner, spoke without looking up. “Any more drugs and she’ll pass out. Which I’m personally in favor of, but please do ask your important questions.”
“I’m fine,” said Natalie hastily. “Just worrying.”
Jake nodded. “I just want to ask you a few more questions and then I’ll let you sleep.” He gave Dr. Pepperman a rueful look.
Natalie sighed, then winced as her side twinged. Seth had been allowed to go home, to his own bed in his own room, because Seth had lied to Dr. Pepperman about the extent of his injuries. He hadn’t lied to Jake, exactly, but he was an expert in providing absolutely useless answers. Everybody knew that Natalie, as the elder sibling, was the responsible one and Seth took shameless advantage of that.
“Go ahead, Dad.” She stared across the infirmary, watching the blue glyphs drift below the surface of the pale walls.
“This Cambion…” Jake began. “Why do you think it was interested in Ajax?”
“The same reason I noticed him, I think. His anima is really strong, Dad.”
“But it was more interested in… recruiting him than devouring him?” Natalie nodded. The bewilderment in Jake’s voice was plain. “Recruiting him for what? No, I know you don’t know, sweetheart. Are you sure it was a Cambion?”
“How could I be sure? I’ve never seen one before. But other than being awfully talkative, it fit the textbook description. And what else could it have been? It definitely wasn’t one of the Awakened.” Natalie laced her fingers together.
The infirmary door opened and Kwan Tae Highsmith strode in. He was an athletic man around Natalie’s father’s age, with a scraggly beard. His usually-cheerful face, which she saw almost every day in class, was set into a frown. “I finished my evaluation of your friend. I thought you two might like to hear the results.”
Natalie’s breath caught in her throat. “Yes. Can he stay?”
Kwan pursed his lips. “He’s sullen. And really too old. But you knew that. I think if he could get over his attitude problem, he’d fit in here. But I don’t think he will.”
“He’s just lost everything, sir. He needs time, I’m sure. Maybe if we could fix his relationship with his father—”
Kwan held up a hand to cut off Natalie’s protest. “But given his specifics, I think sending him back to Earth would be murder. Especially since he’s already been luminated.” Kwan’s bright eyes bored into Natalie.
Natalie flinched. Jake, startled, said, “Not a natural?”
“Oh no,” said Kwan. “He said Seth shone a bright light in his eyes, and only then did he see the Awakened.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed and Natalie couldn’t help shifting uncomfortably and tucking her hands behind her back. Jake asked, “They failed to mention that to me. Natalie, where did Seth get a luminator from?”
“The closet where they’re stored, I imagine.” Natalie pulled herself together again and raised her chin. She wasn’t a little girl anymore.
“The locked closet. Of course he did. And did he luminate your recruit all on his own?”
“No. I asked him to do it.”
Her father gave her a long steady look. “Of course you did.” He turned his attention to his tablet again and Natalie turned to Kwan.
“So can he stay?”
Kwan ran his hand through his hair. “That’s going to be my recommendation, yes. But Natalie— you can’t bring home every stray dog you find, even if they’re really cute and pathetic. We have a recruitment process for a reason. Get some rest and we’ll talk about it later.”
He nodded at Jake and the doctor, and left again. When he was gone, Jake looked back at his daughter. “I’m disappointed, Natalie. Bringing home a sane natural is one thing, an amazing find. Sidestepping the entire recruitment process to luminate a random teenager is something else entirely. Petty theft from Seth I’ve come to expect, but you’ve always been more reliable.”
“I’m pretty sure I saved his life, Dad,” said Natalie, her voice brittle despite her best efforts.
“You save lives by destroying the Awakened, and notifying the Council of potential recruits.”
“It wasn’t a normal situation! There was a Cambion after him. I made the call.”
“I hope it wasn’t a mistake,” said Jake evenly. “Although it sounds like his relationship with his father has already been ruined. In any event, you’re in trouble. You can expect a rank demotion from the Council, and you’re personally grounded as well. No pleasure outings to Earth, just shifts and straight home.”
Natalie pressed her lips together, and did not ask about Seth. But her father knew her. “That goes for your brother, too.”
Through her teeth, Natalie said, “What about the Cambion?” Jake studied her quietly and she added, “Or does my demotion mean suddenly everything I say is suspect?”
“No. I believe you. You destroyed the Cambion, you said.”
“Yes! But we have to find out who created it. A Cambion means somebody has fallen, doesn’t it?”
“Usually,” Jake agreed. “I’ve already started the Nightlight roll-call process. We’ll find out who it was.”
“Good.” Natalie flung herself down in her bed and pulled her covers up, ignoring the rush of pain. “I’m tired. All my bad decisions in the face of legendary monsters wore me out. Good night.”
“Good night, Natalie,” said her father, and left.
The wall chimed to wake Ajax for his first day of school, but he was already awake, laying in bed watching the bar of light slipping between the lightproof curtains. It hadn’t moved, in all the hours he’d watched, as fixed as an artificial light. But outside the curtains was a vegetable garden under an alien sky, with a shrouded sun that never set.
There was a light in his room, too, an organic moving sculpture on the ceiling. It twined over itself in a cloud of sparkling dust, but the light it shed was steady and clear. When Ajax had uncertainly told the wall he was ready to sleep, the sculpture had faded in brilliance until the room was nearly dark.
“Good morning, Ajax,” said the wall, when he sat up. It had a pleasant masculine voice. “A Seneschal has gathered clothing for you from our stores. It’s outside your door.”
“Uh, thanks,” said Ajax. The door to his room looked very much like ordinary wood, but the wall it was set in was made of the same pale smooth material as the rest of this strange place was. Milky stone, he might have thought, except for the writing just under the surface of the wall. Scribbles in an unfamiliar alphabet slowly moved across the wall, sometimes rising into incomprehensible clarity, sometimes sinking into depths the wall could not contain. Sometimes they jostled each other, like people in a crowd.
“Your new clothes are outside,” repeated the wall, patiently.
Ajax started. The wall was more than a little hypnotic, especially in his current frame of mind. Flushing, he opened the door, snatched at the tall pile of clothing and slammed the door again. He hadn’t seen any other people in the hall when they escorted him to the room but why take the risk?
“Natalie asked me to inform you that she will be along in half an hour to escort you to breakfast and then to school.”
Ajax dumped the clothing at the foot of the bed and sorted through it. Secondhand jeans and t-shirts, mostly, but a new package of socks and underwear, and a travel case full of hygiene accessories. “What, no uniforms?” But the wall didn’t seem to think this was worth answering.
There was a bathroom attached to his room by an open archway. It was a surprise, because almost everything in it was normal. The tub was a nice whirlpool number, the shower was just like those he’d sold at his job, and while the sink and toilet seemed to be made of the same material as the walls, they were unmarked by living graffiti.
By the time Natalie knocked at his door, he’d gotten as cleaned up as he could. The mundane experience of getting ready for school had almost been pleasant, and by the time he was done, he’d felt ready for more newness.
“Come in,” he said, standing at the window. There was a small patio just outside the window, and beyond that a very large garden, with beds of herbs interspersed with meadow-like lawns and tangles of flowers climbing over trellises. It looked homey and comfortable, but the large open space was enclosed within grey walls that rose several floors.
Natalie came in and said, “It’s a sliding door. You can go outside, if you want.”
“Did I actually see a goat out there?”
Natalie laughed. It was a warm, pleasant sound. “Yes. They belong to one of the Seneschals.”
He turned around. Natalie’s school clothes were as informal as his: a clingy green t-shirt and cargo pants over worn sneakers. She looked like she’d fit right in at his old school, if you explained away all the bandages she was wearing. “Is this a castle or a spaceship?” he demanded.
“What do you think?” Natalie held the door opened and beckoned him out.
“I’m thinking spaceship, because of the talking walls and the lights, but— goats and gardens? Really?”
Natalie shrugged. “I was born here. It’s home. You’ll see.”
In the hall outside, Seth leaned against a wall. A younger girl stood just beyond him, as if she was trying to hide. She was dark haired and small, with wide, wary eyes.
“Hey, new guy,” yawned Seth. “I hope Kwan and the others weren’t too hard on you.”
“No big deal. I’ve had worse encounters with VPs and guidance counselors.” Ajax shrugged. But if he was honest with himself, his reception after stepping through the portal had rattled him. The interrogation in the locked room had been grueling. They’d collected all sorts of personal information about him before making him repeat the events of the night over and over again. Twice he’d tried to be done, refusing to answer and raising his voice. Kwan and the other man had just watched him patiently and offered him a drink of water. “Who’s she?”
“Who, Jehane?” said Seth. “She’s our novice. Don’t mind her, she’s shy.” He grinned. “Are you shy, new guy?”
“Why?” asked Ajax warily.
“You’re going to get a lot of attention. You will stand out.”
“Why?” This time it was a demand. “It sounded like you had a whole transfer student procedure.”
Natalie sighed, giving Seth a dirty look.. “We usually don’t recruit anybody over the age of thirteen.”
Ajax stopped walking. “I’m seventeen.”
Seth strolled past him then turned around so he was walking backwards. “I’m almost seventeen myself.” He winked at Ajax, gave him two thumbs up, then grabbed Jehane’s hand and ran down the hall.
Ajax tried to quell the horror. “You, too?” he said to Natalie, as casually as he could. “You come across as older.”
“I am,” admitted Natalie. “Seth is eleven months younger than me.”
That wasn’t actually reassuring. Slowly, Ajax said, “Am I going to be four years older than everybody in my class, or four years behind everybody in my class?”
Breathlessly, Natalie said, “It’s not like that. The classes are mixed, so the older kids can help the younger—uh. So the more advanced kids can help the beginners.”
“I heard you the first time.” His mouth set in a thin line. He’d worked harder than he’d ever admit at making sure his academics stayed right in the middle of unremarkable, despite all the school switching he’d done as he was shuttled between his father’s relatives and home.
Natalie looked at him silently. Then she said, “Oh, just come and see. It’s not as bad as you’re thinking.”
Her tone of voice jolted him into walking forward again, because he certainly wasn’t going to hide in his room. But he looked at her as he walked, until she flushed.
“It won’t be,” she insisted. “And if it is, somehow I’ll fix it.”
It wasn’t being stared at that bothered Ajax. He’d changed schools enough to learn to cope with that. It was easy enough to do, at least in American schools: sit at the back of the class, find a few other kids to hang out with and suddenly you fit right in.
No, it was the eleven year olds that bothered Ajax. Thirteen was the upper end of the recruitment age, but some kids started even younger. When a little girl half his size and scarcely older than the little boy he’d saved from the Awakened ran past him giggling, he buried his head in his hands. It wasn’t high school, it was daycare.
The classroom was a large squared-off wedge, much larger than Ajax was used to. Instead of desks, there were six large tables scattered through the room, with computer workstations lining the walls and a circle of folding chairs at one end of the room. The ‘guidance counselor’ of the night before turned out to also be one of the teachers, and he suggested Ajax follow Natalie for today, so he could learn how the class was structured.
As far as Ajax could tell, the class wasn’t structured. Kids wandered between discussions groups at the tables and the workstations whenever they felt like it. A cluster of girls huddled at the folding chairs, gossiping. It was like homeroom, all morning, except there were vigorous discussions of Shakespeare, political science and some kind of math game going on at the tables.
“Everybody has their own academic plan, which the teachers help them put together,” explained Natalie. She sat next to him at a table, going over some papers for a younger student. A lot of people seemed to want Natalie’s attention, and Seth seemed just as popular.
“Great,” said Ajax. “Here, give me some paper, and I’ll put together my very own ‘academic plan’.” The round tables made him nervous, and totally disrupted his strategy of lurking at the back of the class until he figured things out. But they were better than sitting at one of the workstations with his back to the class.
Dubiously, she got him a notebook and a pencil. He immediately started sketching an abstract design. When she finished her work and went to get up, he waved her away. “You go on, do your work. I’ll just be over here, doing my thing. That’s how this works, right?”
Natalie blew her breath out. “Ajax—”
But just then, Kwan called her. She scowled at Ajax, then left him to his notebook. He kept his head down the rest of the morning. Kwan passed by once, complimenting his sketch, and students kept peering over his shoulder, then wandering off when he ignored them.
By the time lunch rolled around, he’d completed then crumpled four different winding designs. “Why are you throwing them away?” said Natalie.
“I’m done with them. Now what do we do?”
“We get an hour and a half for lunch, then we meet in the gym for the afternoon.”
“Back to the cafeteria?”
Natalie smiled. “Only if we have to. Let’s go see.”
He and Natalie followed the stream of kids heading out of the classroom and down the curving corridor. Eventually they ended up in the large hall Ajax remembered from the night before. It was a huge oval room, with dozens and dozens of 2-meter-wide framed metal sheets lining the walls. There were bookshelves cluttered with gear and knick-knacks scattered between the frames. Some of the frames had post-it notes stuck to them, and others had worn carpets in front of them. It felt simultaneously alien and homey.
As kids approached various mirrors, each one flickered red or blue, then became a rippling image of a cityscape. Chatting to each other, the students stepped into each image and vanished beyond.
“Hey, is that the Eiffel Tower?” asked Ajax. His frayed temper briefly vanished in the wonder of what he was watching.
Seth, behind him, said, “How about steak frites for lunch? Or maybe Chinese? Italian?”
“Absolutely not,” said the wall. “Seth and Natalie, you’re grounded.”
Natalie made a face. “Oh well. Let’s get lunch from the cafeteria and eat in the pumpkin courtyard.”
“You go on,” said Ajax, still watching the portals. “I want to stay here.”
“Enjoy, new guy,” said Seth, and pushed Natalie away.
When they were gone, Ajax said aloud, “Am I grounded?”
The wall said, “Technically, no. But you’re also not rated for a latchkey yet, which means you can’t leave without a qualified escort.”
“A babysitter,” Ajax grumbled. Once again, the wall didn’t answer, and as the Portalry emptied of lunch seekers, Ajax finally dredged up some curiousity about the voice from the wall.
“What do I call you, talking wall?”
“My name is Kentigern.”
“Kentigern. Right. Okay. Are you… a guy in a control room somewhere? A ghost? Or a Star Trek computer?”
“Can’t I be all three?” Ajax wondered if he imagined the hint of amusement in the voice.
“Well, is this… thing, this building, is it actually a spaceship? That sky out my window isn’t on Earth, I know that.”
“No, not a spaceship, just a tower. But you’re not on Earth anymore. Well done.”
Ajax glared at the nearest wall. “Where are we, then?”
“The dominant theory among the Readers— those are our researchers— is that the tower is on a semi-artificial planetoid, constructed by an alien species long before humanity discovered fire, and so far away from Earth’s system as to be meaningless.”
Ajax absorbed this. “Wow. What’s it like outside? Is it all like the garden I saw from my room?”
Four motes of light from around the room converged on the wall closest to Ajax and formed the corners of a rectangle. An image formed, growing in clarity until it seemed like an open window. The landscape beyond had the same strange light quality seen from his window, an unmoving sun filtered by thick purple and yellow clouds. The ground was orange, with sparse yellow grass growing around a packed-down road. The road led toward trees— but strange, bubbling trees with rounded foilage, looming over blade-like ferns. Something moved in the undergrowth, reminding Ajax of the Awakened in the single glimpse he had before it vanished.
Leaning against the wall, he said, “I thought I was joining an army when I came here. Not signing up for… kindergarten.” He looked out the window more, then said hopefully, “Maybe I could go out there?”
“If you really want to fight for your life, there are some rats in the storehouse level.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Ajax snapped, and pushed himself away from the wall. “I can’t go outside, I can’t go back to Earth. I really didn’t expect to be a prisoner, you know?”
“Yes, you seem very angry about it.”
“What’s the worse that happened if you let me outside? I get killed? Who cares! Or maybe you open one of those portals, you let me out in England or something, I’m no longer a problem to anybody but myself.”
“How nice.” Kentigern sounded bored. “A tantrum from the kindergartener. Well, get it all out. Class resumes in 45 minutes. You have a lot to learn if you want to earn any responsibility.”
Ajax knew he was acting like a brat and didn’t care. “No way. If I see anymore grade schoolers declaiming Shakespeare, I may have to bash my skull in.”
“Is that so? Then I think you’ll like the afternoon session very much. Plenty of opportunity to get your skull bashed in and no rats required!”
Natalie, Seth and Jehane sat in the pumpkin courtyard to eat their lunch. It was smaller than the courtyards in the residential wing, and planted with gourds and squash of all varieties, not just pumpkins. There were also beans and flowers and fruit trees trained against the wall. Bees buzzed in and out of holes in the courtyard wall. Unlike the residential courtyard, it felt quiet and isolated.
After they were settled on wooden benches, Jehane cautiously volunteered, “Ajax, he seemed very irritable? Did he not want to come to the school?”
Seth said, “He was expecting a war, not books. Looking for trouble, not education. His lumination was pretty exciting.” His smile widened. “The lucky thing about trouble is you can always make it yourself.” He laughed and stuffed his pickle and cheese sandwich into his mouth.
Natalie said, “He’s had it hard, Jehane. Somebody died yesterday, and his father kicked him out. That takes time to cope with. And people who don’t laugh at you.” She glared at Seth.
Seth snorted. “You’re too nice, Natalie. An attitude like his isn’t the result of a single bad night. It takes years of careful cultivation to develop that kind of chip on your shoulder. Nah, I’m pretty sure he’s going to flame out soon, and as long as he does it without hurting anybody else, I’m going enjoy the show.”
“Then why did you luminate him, if you think he’s a bad bet just like everyone else?” demanded Natalie.
His mouth full, Seth inclined his head to Natalie. When he’d swallowed he said, “Because you asked me to. I’m an obedient younger brother.” He grinned and dodged the crust she threw at him.
Jehane said, “How can he flame out without hurting anybody else?”
“Oh, it’s easy—” began Seth, then took a look at Jehane’s serious face and caught himself. “Well, realistically? I expect he’ll slip out to Earth without backup before he’s ready, take on an Awakened and end up dead. But he’s really got lots of options. He was drunk when we fought the Cambion. He didn’t do anything in class today. It’s hard to fail out of Kwan’s class but he could manage it.”
“Oh.” Jehane looked down at her lunch. “You’re so cold about it.”
“You care too much,” Seth countered, looking at Natalie.
Nettled, she said, “That Cambion was after him for a reason. He’s special.”
“Yes, he has a very big…” Seth paused, and waited for Jehane’s blush before he continued, “anima. And easy on the eyes, too, eh?”
With dignity, Natalie stood up and put the remains of her lunch in the trash, then headed for the sliding glass door that led to the Tower interior. It opened as she approached, and Rohan and Elian, two boys from class appeared.
Rohan held out a small paper bag to Natalie, grinning at her. “Cookies from Belgium.” He’d recently hit a growth spurt and now loomed over almost everybody else in the class. Natalie wasn’t used to having to tilt her head to look up at him.
She dredged up a smile as she accepted the bag. “Thanks. Being grounded kind of sucks.”
“Yeah. I really hope this Ajax guy is worth it. I wasn’t impressed today, you know?”
Natalie’s smile flickered off. She turned to Elian, who still seemed as skinny and undernourished as he had when he first came to the Tower four years before. “You came from outside. Do you think he’s as bad as everybody else seems to?”
Elian stepped backward, as if Natalie was threatening him. “More antisocial, yeah? Like Jehane used to be. Except I never thought Jehane would slug me as soon as look at me. The new guy gave me such a look today…” He shook his head.
In the background, Seth said, “We have to work on that, Jehane. Let’s practice your evil look. Study Ajax closely, while you have the chance.”
Natalie said loudly, “You could all make a little more of an effort. So he’s a bit older and bigger than most new kids. So what?”
Nobody answered at first. But Rohan’s grin faded, until he said, “Don’t get stuck on him, Natalie. I promise, he isn’t worth it.” After a long, searching look, he said, “Come on, Elian. Enjoy the cookies, Natalie.” He turned and stalked away, Elian trailing after him.
Natalie stared after him. “What was that about?”
Seth appeared beside her, and leaned over to whisper in her ear, “I think he thinks he likes you.”
“Oh.” Natalie relaxed. “I don’t have time for that.” It was an automatic reaction.
Seth widened his eyes. “Shock!”
Natalie ignored him. Seth always seemed to have plenty of time to flirt, but she had enough to do with her schoolwork, and her Nightlight duties, and her role as a teacher’s assistant, and helping at home with the younger kids, and especially keeping Seth out of trouble… And now there was Ajax. Her thoughts ran ahead to the class ahead.
“I’m going to go prep for the afternoon session. That’s more like what you think Ajax was expecting, so maybe he’ll be more accessible.”
“Are you kidding? That’s when I expect him to finally lash out at somebody!”
Natalie slid the door shut in Seth’s face, and went to class.
The gymnasium where the afternoon session took place was almost normal. There was a balcony around the upper wall rather than bleachers, and the flooring that wasn’t covered by mats was the same material as the walls. But the presence of gymnastics equipment, an obstacle course and a basketball hoop, and a lingering smell of sweat and liniment all combined to make it feel like a bit of home.
Ajax lingered near the entrance as the other students filed in and started doing warm-ups. At first, it seemed like an ordinary gym class. But then, some of the kids held out their hands and pulled glowing weapons out of thin air. Natalie and Seth’s magic weapons had been convincingly realistic, but the glowing weapons held by these other kids seemed like lightsabers drawn by an enthusiastic six year old.
Kwan nodded at Ajax as he joined the students. “Glad to see you. Give me a minute to get the others started and then I’ll get you started on your foundational weapon skills.”
That was sufficiently interesting to make Ajax bite back his snarky response. He watched as Kwan paired off some of the kids, and set others to running the obstacle course, which included climbing over piled mats, jumping a vault, speeding along a high balance beam and catching themselves on a bar. Natalie, he set to coaching some of the paired off students, and Seth was set to timing and encouraging the obstacle course runners. He admonished them both to not even consider working out themselves until they’d had a few days to heal. As soon as Kwan had his back turned, Seth started changing the rules of the obstacle course, but Natalie moved among her students deftly correcting a grip here, a stance there. Even injured, she was graceful.
Kwan eclipsed the view. “All right. Weapon skills. Anima weapons are the core of a Guardian’s abilities. In general, we see three stages of anima weapon summoning.” He handed Ajax a light wooden sword that clacked when he swung it. “Stage 1 is very simple: just your anima, borrowing the frame of a real weapon. Stage 2 is our everyday training level; that’s what those students are using. You probably noticed Stage 3 weapons when you met Natalie the other night: advanced students have mastered their anima enough to manifest almost entirely real weapons.”
“Only almost? They seemed pretty real to me,” said Ajax.
Kwan smiled. “Natalie couldn’t hand you her katana; it would vanish as soon as she tried. But yes, it slices, it dices. Mastery of a Stage 3 weapon is required before a Guardian is allowed to act as a Nightlight on Earth, and acquiring that mastery can be dangerous.”
“The anima is a powerful reflection of a person. Mastering it can sometimes require tapping into parts of themselves they may not want to admit to. That can make a weapon unpredictable. ” Ajax opened his mouth to demand a less oblique answer, but Kwan raised a hand. “Don’t worry about it for now. Very few of my students have mastered Stage 3, and some of them never will. Stage 1 and 2 are relatively straightforward, in comparison. From what you told me in our interview, you manifested Stage 1 when you pulled an Awakened away from its victim.”
Ajax brightened. “Yeah? All right!”
Kwan nodded. “I’d like to see it, though. Go ahead and push your anima out around the practice sword. You’ll know when you succeed, because the sword should glow.”
Ajax frowned. “My hands didn’t glow.” But Kwan just crossed his arms, watching him with calm interest.
Scowling, Ajax looked down at his hand, trying to once again see the layers of self. He thought he could see them, but if so, they weren’t responding to his will.
Quietly, Kwan said, “Visualize a field of energy around yourself, and then envision the field flowing down your arm and through your hand to wrap around the sword.”
Ajax’s hand tightened on the sword, but he took a deep breath and followed Kwan’s instructions. It was a pretty mental picture, but he knew it wasn’t doing a damn thing. He tried to remember what he’d felt when he pulled that thing off his father. His goddamned father, who he’d spent so long trying to please, wishing he could regain what they’d never really had— but what everybody else seemed to take for granted—
“Hmm,” said Kwan. Ajax opened his eyes hopefully, but the wooden sword was just a wooden sword.
Furious with himself, Ajax focused on his hand instead of the sword. He’d manipulated his anima before, he was certain. And people were watching him now. Seth had paused his harassment of the obstacle runners, and several boys had stopped their dueling to drift over.
One of them, a tall Indian boy with glasses, said, “I though Stage 1 was usually pretty easy after lumination.”
“I did it by accident,” said a short, scrawny black boy.
“Shut it, Rohan, Elian” said Kwan. “You’ve definitely got the capacity, Ajax. Your anima is vibrating all over. But see if you can focus a little more. I’ll go dig up some visualization exercises that have helped other students.” He strode off.
As soon as he was gone, Rohan, the tall boy, laughed. “I think Natalie got suckered.” He held out his hand and looked at the sword-shaped bar of light that manifested. “Easy.”
Ajax gritted his teeth and thought that if he could just manifest a Stage 1, he’d let himself hit Rohan with it. His field of vision narrowed until all he saw was his hand and the sword he held. For a moment, he could see the field of energy around his hand, radiating off of his other self. It brightened and faded arrhythmically, then faded out of his vision again.
The scrawny kid called Elian said, “I thought he did a Level 1 before?”
Seth jumped over a giant spool and landed beside Ajax. “He did. Hey, Rohan, you should be careful waving that thing around. Somebody might think you’re compensating for something. I mean, Natalie’s watching. And, you know, others.”
Ajax glanced over and met Natalie’s concerned gaze. “Great,” he muttered.
Rohan frowned and let his Stage 2 weapon dissolve. “Piss off, Seth.”
Seth ignored Rohan to whisper to Ajax. “She’s got a lot riding on you.”
If Ajax could just manifest a Stage 1, he’d use to it hit Rohan and Seth.
“Hey, get back to work, slackers.” It was Kwan again, holding a folder. “Ajax, take a break from this. Go run the obstacle course until you wear yourself out. You can go around the harder obstacles if you need to.”
Ajax threw the wooden sword down, harder than he needed to, and stalked over to the obstacle course. Seth strolled beside him, his hands beside his back.
“Are you going to time me, or what?” Ajax looked over the course. It ran the length of the gym; in a better mood he might have said it looked like fun.
“Nah. I thought I’d pace you instead.” Seth bounced on his toes, his hands still behind his back.
Ajax sneered. “I thought you had a doctor’s note to take it easy.”
Seth laughed. “Oh, I’m sure your very best will qualify as taking it easy for me.” He brought his hands out from behind his back. They were glowing softly. He snapped his fingers beneath Ajax’s nose, then ran over to the ladder that started the course.
Ajax’s irritation and frustration crashed into fury, and he threw himself after Seth. The fury lasted for a single circuit of the obstacle course. Then it settled into dull hatred, and then a narrow determination to catch him, even if it meant grabbing the other boy’s shoe as he kept tantalizingly just out of reach.
Three-quarters of the way through Ajax’s third circuit, he came over a climbing obstacle and Seth had vanished. Ajax looked around wildly, and spotted him by the side of the course, holding his stopwatch. “Pretty good, new guy. Finish up and we’ll have your personal slowest!” Ajax used to think he was in pretty good shape. But he was panting, aching and the blond bastard was barely out of breath.
Still, he found the energy to launch himself toward Seth, who dodged to one side and spread his arms. Once again, he managed to stay just out of reach, practically dancing from one side to another, just faster than Ajax could reach him. “I didn’t think you had it in you,” said Seth admiringly. “I’ll have to remember this.”
“Seth, don’t. Don’t be mean to him,” said a girl’s voice from nearby, quiet and unfamiliar.
Seth turned to look at the speaker, and Ajax flung himself forward, taking advantage of Seth’s distraction to grab him by the shirt collar. “Do,” he panted. “Do remember this.”
Seth grinned at him, and held one glowing hand about an inch from Ajax’s stomach. “I promise. Learn to summon a weapon and you might even be dangerous some day.”
The girl’s voice said, almost desperately, “Please…” and Ajax flung Seth away from him, then let himself sag to the floor.
“Poor Jehane,” said Seth. “Do you feel bad for him? You shouldn’t.”
The dark-haired girl who’d been tagging along behind Seth and Natalie all day hunched her shoulders. “I’m no good at summoning weapons, either.”
“You’re useful other ways,” said Seth. “We don’t know how he’s useful yet.”
Ajax held out his hand, closed his eyes and visualized the energy field again. The catharsis of trying to pummel Seth had helped, he knew it had. He felt his breathing become calm, and when it was, he pushed.
But when he opened his eyes, his fist was just a fist.
Jehane came over to sit beside him. “It’s all right. I’m not reliable, but I’m learning. You will, too.” But Ajax looked at Seth’s expression, and knew he was being consoled by the worst weapon summoner in the class.
“Hurrah,” he said, and dropped his head into his hands.