Ajax looked at the pretty girl who’d introduced herself as Natalie, and her now empty hand. Then he shook his head, turned and walked away. He probed his side as he walked, trying to figure out how bad the gash was. It felt like something had ripped into him.
The girl couldn’t take a hint. She followed along behind him. “Normally I’d let you walk away. I’m supposed to walk away myself.” She paused, but when he steadfastly ignored her, she went on. “But you’re going to end up dead if I do that. You’d be dying right now if I hadn’t caught up with you.”
A dozen responses hovered on the tip of Ajax’s tongue but he was not going to engage. Girls with swords were trouble, even if they were hot. Girls who could make their swords vanish belonged in the kind of movies where idiots were the protagonists. They didn’t belong in the street, pestering him.
“I mean, you have a ton of anima. That’s soul energy, if you care. Which, clearly you don’t. You know, even if you don’t care about your own death, you could care about others. That Awakened I cut off you wasn’t even your own! Other people are going to die if we don’t sort you out one way or another. Maybe worse than die.”
And yet there she was, talking and talking and talking. Ajax was certain she’d follow him all the way home. That was tempting in its way, but could not be tolerated. He wondered if he could fob her off on one of his school buddies.
“Come on, don’t be like this. I just want to talk to you. Explain what happened. Aren’t you even a little curious? Or has that died in you already?”
He probably couldn’t.
Ajax whirled so suddenly that she almost ran into him. “Go away. Leave me alone. I don’t care about your bullshit.”
She stumbled backward, her eyes huge. “Wow. Your anima is… intense, too.”
“You keep saying that, but I don’t speak crazy bitch.”
She sighed and pulled a cellphone out of her pocket. When she dialed a number, Ajax took advantage of her moment of distraction, and started running.
The jarring turned the ache from his wounded side into agony, but he was in good shape and he managed a burst of speed anyhow. He wove his way deeper into the neighborhood before slowing down again. Gingerly, he probed his injury again. It was still oozing. He probably needed stitches, or at least to sit still and apply pressure.
There was no sign of the girl chasing him. He hesitated and then turned toward home. The faster he could vanish indoors, the less likely she’d be to find him again. He was less than a mile from his house. It was late, and not a good neighborhood, but he knew the place like the back of his hand. This wasn’t the first night he’d avoided going home until he was exhausted. He walked quickly, letting his side bleed instead of applying pressure. It was best not to appear wounded here, whatever the truth.
It had never been a nice area. There were only two kinds of yards: weeds trying to suck sustenance out of packed dirt fertilized by piss and rust and cigarette butts, and the groomed, perfect, carefully fenced yards maintained by old people with nothing better to do. It was amazing how fast the latter turned into the former when somebody died.
Crumbled old patchwork on the streets had been overtaken by crocodile cracking. Ajax stomped between two interlocking cracks, pushing the asphalt back into the new pothole. Old beaters lined the road. There were new cars in the neighborhood, too: sleek beasts that the local kids knew better than to touch. But even their cocky owners didn’t leave them outside on the street to tempt the night.
He turned left at the corner with the three mongrels on the other side of a chain link fence. The Beware of Dog sign had been edited: Beware of God. The dogs were all in the far corner of the yard, cowering and barking.
Ajax took note. Usually they were dozing at this hour. Whoever had spooked the dogs might still be around. He stepped into the shadow of a tree, leaning against the trunk, and listened. A car alarm going off in the distance. Voices raised in argument on the next block. A crying baby. A cat yowling.
The crunch of something moving over the broken asphalt.
Something came around the corner. Some sort of animal. A very large animal— Ajax’s first dizzy thought was: a zebra.
It was black and white, and moved on all fours, but there were claws on the big feet. It hunched close to the ground, snuffling at the pavement. A long tongue licked the road, and then it bounded forward to a glistening spot on the road ahead. It was maned like a lion, but as it crouched down again to inspect the wet spot, Ajax saw it had the face of a baboon.
It wasn’t striped, either; it was as dark as the road, with white frosting the tips of its fur, and running down each of its limbs. It looked like it was wearing a skeleton suit.
It licked the wetness on the asphalt again, and purred. The purr turned into a sighed word. “Yessss…” Then it lifted its head and looked directly at the tree where Ajax was hiding, and Ajax realized the wet trail it had been following was his own blood.