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.