“So, aren’t you injured?” Ajax said, leaning on his glowing weapon. “Shouldn’t you still be in bed?”
“I’m fine,” Natalie said quickly. “The doctor sent me up here.” It was technically true.
Natalie twisted her wrist and brought her katana out. “Which one of us has a stage 3 weapon here?”
“I guess you’ve got everything well in hand then. Should I just move on?” She didn’t answer, and his silhouette didn’t move.
In the distance, outside the wall, something crashed and squealed. The hoarse, faraway cry dropped into the silence of the storeroom like a rock into a pond.
Ajax shifted position. “I’ve been wondering if all this stuff is proto-monster. I heard that Kentigern manufactures raw materials for his own construction and stores them here?”
“Something like that,” Natalie said, then admitted, “I haven’t paid very much attention to how Kentigern and the Tower works, outside of what’s required in class.”
“Straight As at the required stuff, though, I bet.”
“Well, yes. Obviously.”
He laughed, the first time she’d heard him laugh without bitterness. “Obviously. Well, I was thinking maybe we could use the goop to close up some of these holes. Some of the stuff here is like our own anima, so—”
It was her turn to laugh. “Where did you get that idea?”
He fished something out of a pocket, which he handed to her. It turned out to be a tiny LED flashlight. As soon as she turned it on, he let his glowing stage 2 weapon evaporate.
He pulled on the side of one of the half-crumbled crates, revealing the stack of translucent bricks inside, and picked one up. Holding it like a club, he concentrated.
It flickered, a warm glow appearing from deep inside. “Like stage 1, kind of,” said Ajax. “But see?”
The brick moved in his hand, flowing up into a point, then melting all over his hand and pouring onto the floor. The glow faded, and he shook the droplets off his hand. “I’m no better at managing this stuff than I am at managing my weapon, though.”
Natalie stared. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. How— is it just you?”
He snorted. “I doubt it. It doesn’t feel like a matter of power, just control.” He picked up another brick of solidified goo and tossed it to her. “You try.”
She hesitated. It was a brick of solid matter. She could cut it with her own weapon, but how could she change it? But her katana disappeared and she took the brick in both hands, trying to use it as she used the training blades.
It was the strangest experience. She could feel her anima enfolding the brick, just like it did the wooden blade. But unlike the blades, the brick was… permeable. Tendrils of her anima crept inside it. It became malleable in her fist, and the top part elongated in a pale facsimile of a training sword.
But it’s just a brick, she thought. Fuel for the motes. The raw material of the Tower.
The brick, or whatever it was, dissolved, gushing out of her hand. It didn’t cling to her skin like water, so that when she shook the last droplets from her hand, it was utterly dry. The floor, though, had more gooey puddles.
“I think I need more practice. Have you been making all those messes back where I came from? Trying this out?”
“I came from the other direction, so nope. Probably Kentigern. You said he was trying to fix himself.”
There was another roar from outside, and a thump that seemed like it was right outside the wall. A flash of lightning illuminated the room, dancing across the sky visible through the opening.
“Right,” said Natalie hurriedly. “How about we just shove the crates in front of the hole? They’re pretty heavy when they’re full and it looks like a lot of them haven’t been touched.”
“Good idea,” Ajax said thoughtfully. He pushed on one of the crates. It moved about an inch. She joined him at the crate, shoving hard. Together they maneuvered it in front of the hole to the outside. Then they struggled to tip a second crate on top of the first, blocking the rest of the hole.
As they worked, Natalie became aware of Ajax’s presence in a way she hadn’t been before. She pushed, and could feel the warmth of his muscled arm less than an inch away from hers. She paused to catch her breath after a burst of exertion and inhaled his scent, all sweaty male with a hint of moss and spice. A faint panic curled through her, and she shifted position and tried to work out why.
He wasn’t a kid, she realized. Part of her had been thinking of him as a kid, all this time. An oversized version of the first year students, somebody she had to take care of. A talented student to teach.
She looked at him from the corner of her eye, the light from the little flashlight attached to her belt loop glinting off his olive skin. He was a lot bigger than she was. One of his hands, broad-palmed and long-fingered, was almost twice the size of her own.
He pushed the final crate an inch closer to the wall, then glanced down at her, meeting her gaze as she stared up at him. The light from the flashlight reflected off the floor up into his face, making his face demonic. He hesitated, then reached out and closed his hand over the tiny flashlight, catching the light in his fist. His thumb caught in her belt loop as the room dropped to near dark, the only source of light glowing through his fist and glittering in his eyes.
He tugged on her belt loop and his head dipped.
Just an inch, and then he froze. A ragged breath hissed between his teeth. He released the flashlight and her belt loop, shrugged off the hand she hadn’t noticed herself putting on his arm, and stepped back.
“Well done,” he said harshly. “You really ought to get out of here. Whatever the doctor sent you up here for, it wasn’t to hang out in the dark with me.”
“You aren’t—” Natalie began, and the light flickered on. Ajax looked no more like a child in full light, wearing a shirt that seemed a size too small and his mouth an angry slash across the planes of his face.
“Excuse me,” said Kentigern softly, then launched into a song, sweet and sad and alien.
“He sang that before,” Ajax muttered, and hit the wall gently with his fist. “You’ll have to translate, Kentigern.”
“It’s all right,” said Kentigern, when he finished singing. “I composed it myself. It’s a lament. Can you please leave the storeroom? I need to seal it.”
The hole Natalie had come through began to grow closed. Ajax pounded on the irising door, but it didn’t open. “Come on,” Natalie called, and darted through the sealing opening. It was closing very fast.
Ajax shook his head and threw himself through after her. He stumbled over the rising edge of the hole and fell, knocking her down and landing half on her. Then he rolled off her, like he’d landed on lightning, springing to his feet, grabbing her hand, and hauling her through the next hole.
For a few minutes there was only running and jumping and dodging, until finally they made it through the maze of storerooms back to the hall. Adrenaline pumping through her veins, Natalie leaned against the wall beside the supplies she’d abandoned and tried to catch her breath.
Ajax crouched down, pressing his head against the wall. “Does this mean Kentigern’s feeling better?”
Natalie remembered the lament. “I don’t… think so.”
Somewhere, deep in the tower, there was a clunk.