“Ajax,” Natalie called as he slouched into the afternoon session. Ajax set his jaw, pretended he hadn’t heard her, and headed over to the little free weight room off to one side.
He wasn’t halfway there when she intercepted him, skidding to a stop in front of him. “I’ve been cleared for full activity,” she informed him.
“Congratulations.” He looked her over. Her blond hair bounced around her face, she had her color back, and her eyes were bright with determination. “You look good,” he added, then could have bitten his tongue.
She gave him a skeptical look, then said, “Do you know what that means?” Without waiting for an answer, she plowed on. “It means I’m your teacher now.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t want you to be my teacher. I want to be left alone.”
She thrust the practice sword she was holding into his hands. “Tough. Stop whining. You need to practice.”
“Maybe you haven’t noticed all the practicing I’ve been doing. It hasn’t helped.” He pushed the sword back into her hands. She caught his fingers in her own and closed them around the hilt. He froze for a moment, which she took advantage of to rearrange his grip.
“You’ve been practicing summoning weapons, and working on your endurance. I’m going to teach you to use one.”
“What’s the point if I can’t summon one?” he managed, as she started tugging him over to the practice area.
She gave him a look eloquent in its disdain. “Most of the people in the Tower can’t summon an anima weapon. The Prowlers use real weapons outside the Tower. Skill acquired is never wasted.” She thumped one of his thighs with her fist. “Widen your stance.”
He sprang away from her. “Hey, hands off.”
She crossed her arms and gave him an amused look. For a wild moment, he thought about throwing down the sword and running out of class. But then, beyond Natalie, he noticed Rohan watching the two of them closely, displeasure on his face.
Ajax smirked at him and turned his attention to Natalie. “All right. Tell me what to do.”
She gave him a bright smile and picked up a wooden sword of her own. For a while, he followed her instructions and mirrored her movements. Then he said, “Why are you using a practice sword?”
She paused, leaning on the wooden blade. “Once you achieve Stage 3, it’s hard to manage Stage 2. It’s like sliding down a hill. Holding a real weapon, even a wooden one, tends to force anima into a Stage 1 form if it’s called on. So it’s safer. And yes, before you ask, Stage 3 weapons are dangerous— more dangerous than metal weapons. They’re pretty reliable in life or death situations, but they want everything to be a life or death situation. Not so good for a classroom.”
“Oh, come on, Natalie,” said Rohan, watching nearby. “It’s not that bad.”
“Hatherly and Laurel summoned their weapons just to show them off the other day,” Ajax pointed out.
“Yeah? Well, the rule is no Stage 3 weapons in a classroom,” said Natalie calmly.
“It’s a dumb rule,” grumbled Rohan. “Kwan won’t schedule me for my advanced training test.
Elian, always beside Rohan, said, “We’ll both get there. It’s just a matter of time.”
Rohan scowled. “Seth was younger than both of us when he passed his test.”
“Seth is hardly somebody to emulate,” said Natalie sharply. “Stop lounging about. Go practice.” And she tapped Ajax’s leg with the sword she’d been leaning on. “You too. Lazing. Back to it.”
Ajax got back to it. The wooden sword felt strange in his hands, half a toy, half an illusion, the handle hard and unresponsive. He wondered that Natalie referred to it as a ‘real’ weapon. He remembered her katana. There had never been a blade more real than that. He felt like when he released the wooden sword, it should be the thing that vanished. But when Natalie knocked it out of his hand, it fell to the mat with a thud.
He scrambled after it, and a sound made him look over at Elian and Rohan, set up to spar between himself and the wall. They both had Stage 2 weapons out. Elian’s was at his side, but Rohan’s was in front of his face, and the bar of light that made up the blade was bulging.
“What?” said Natalie. “Oh, no. Rohan!”
“I can do it, Natalie…” said Rohan, distantly. “You never give me any credit…”
“I knew you could,” said Elian, his face glowing.
“Rohan, not here— Kwan!” But as Natalie spoke, the bar of light in Rohan’s hands pulsed and dissolved into a heavy, two-handed scimitar.
Rohan bared his teeth in a grin, swishing the weapon through the air. The blade cast a deep black shadow, far darker than the other shadows in the classroom.
“Where’s the glyph?” Ajax demanded. The blade flashed to white, then silver again, but the black shadow remained constant.
Natalie spoke low and quick, “He’s not ready. He’s not in control.”
“I didn’t think I could. I didn’t. Elian believed in me, though.” Rohan’s words tumbled over each other, his voice breathy and flat. “Elian always thinks he knows everything about me. There’s some things Elian shouldn’t know, though. Nobody should know. But you look at me…”
Elian looked alarmed. “Eh? What? Rohan, bro, great job but you’re kind of freaking me out…” His own Stage 2 weapon flickered out of existence.
The shadow-light scimitar wavered through the air until it was pointing directly at Elian. Kwan’s voice came over Ajax’s shoulder, very quietly. “Move away, very slowly, Elian. Do it now.”
Elian stumbled backward as Kwan strode forward, putting his hand on Rohan’s shoulder. “Rohan, your anima is unbalanced. Open your hand and try again.” There was a clear tone of command in his voice, but Rohan didn’t seem to notice.
“Where’s Elian’s balance? Where’s Elian’s weapon? Why does he make me look inside when he doesn’t? What does he see? He’s always in the back of my head.” Rohan’s grip tightened on his sword. “Maybe if I cut him out there will be nothing to see.”
Elian, looking distinctly unnerved, turned to run. Three steps and he stumbled on the edge of the mat. Rohan threw his arm out, knocking Kwan’s arm away, and sprang after Elian. He was shockingly fast.
But Ajax was faster.
As Rohan’s shadow-light scimitar descended toward Elian, Ajax’s wooden sword caught it. The gleaming edge of the scimitar slid against the thin film of light sheathing the practice sword.
“Hey. Don’t be a jerk,” Ajax said, shoving the scimitar away. It descended again, and again he caught it. This time he pressed forward. Rohan’s eyes were bright and blank, like a predator’s. “It isn’t cool to attack the people who are kind to you.”
“I don’t deserve his kindness. I don’t want his pity. He knows— knows! what I want and it will only hurt him. I don’t want to hurt him…”
Ajax leaned close and whispered, “Then stop.”
Rohan’s eyes flickered. Then he opened his hands mechanically, and the scimitar dissolved. He staggered forward, then fell on Ajax. Ajax deposited him on the mat beside where Elian had regained his feet.
Rohan focused on Elian. “Sorry, man,” he croaked.
Elian said, “Hey, bro, you stopped. So no big deal.” A grin flickered across his solemn face. “My own fault for encouraging you. But it’s great to know you have such a high opinion of me…” He sat down beside Rohan.
Ajax faded back, rejoining Natalie beside Kwan. “What the hell just happened?” He realized Natalie was giving him a funny look. “What? Look—”
“You look! Look at your sword.”
He glanced at it, realized what the faint glow around it meant. “Woohoo. Stage 1. Now I’m on the same level as Jehane!”
Natalie swung her own wooden sword at him, furiously. He caught it just as he’d caught Rohan’s. “You idiot. Stage 1 doesn’t stop Stage 3. Ever. Wood doesn’t stop Stage 3. Sometimes steel doesn’t stop Stage 3.” She let go of the wooden sword and it dropped to the mat. For a moment Ajax wondered if she was going to summon her katana and demonstrate, but she just turned and stomped away to the water cooler.
Ajax looked around, hoping for somebody to give him an explanation. Kwan stared at him thoughtfully.
“I had to do something,” Ajax said.
“Yes, and thank you. But…. Congratulations on Stage 1. Work on understanding what you did. But, please, don’t work on Stage 2 until we’ve had time to make some observations.”
Ajax sputtered, then gave up on eloquence. “Huh?”
Kwan didn’t smile. “As I said, you’re dangerous. And weapons are dangerous. Now, you’ve seen one way how.”