Illumination 4.5: A Simple Test

Ajax finally cornered Kwan in the Portalry, surrounded by newspapers. “Ah, there you are,” said the teacher, like it was Kwan who had been looking for Ajax.

“You’re right,” said Ajax. “It’d be no good to send me out alone. But I could be apprenticed or whatever it’s called, couldn’t I? I thought the main requirement of that was a Stage 2 weapon.”

Kwan regarded him with more pity than Ajax liked to see on somebody’s face when it was pointed at him. He flushed. “I guess I sound pretty desperate.”

“There’s a bit more to it than a Stage 2 weapon. But let’s go for a walk, and maybe you can demonstrate what you can do for me. It’s a bit harder on Earth, you know.”

“Yeah? I wondered. But that’s okay. It’s easier for me when there’s something real to fight.” He followed Kwan to one of the portal frames, noticed the newspapers on the shelf next to the portal, and stopped dead. “Not here, though.”

“You don’t want to go back to your hometown?” Kwan’s voice was mild.

“My dad told the cops I murdered his business partner, remember?” Ajax’s fists clenched. “He just assumed the worst. If you’re trying to arrange some kind of reconciliation or something, I’m just going to head back to the nursery and get my babysit on.”

Kwan gave him a steady look. “Has it always been bad?”

Ajax laughed. “Oh no, not always bad. I was always happy when he found somebody to send me away to. First it was his druggie little brother. I got a real education watching him with his string of girlfriends. Then it was Cousin Madeline.” He hesitated, until Kwan’s attentive silence sucked the words out of him. “She was okay, until she married an asshole who didn’t want a kid around.”

“And she sent you back to your father?”

Ajax shrugged. “There were others willing to help out my dad with his troubled kid. He’s really good at getting sympathy.” Guilt stabbed at him, and he added, “I think my grandmother— my mom’s mom— was on my side. She didn’t seem to like my dad very much. But she died less than a year after I moved in with her.” He tried not to sound bitter. He knew it wasn’t fair to the old lady who’d tried so hard to reform him. Then again, was it fair of her to have a heart failure when he was just starting to think he had a future? “Anyhow, it doesn’t matter. My dad never wanted me around, except as something he could use. I’m not going to talk to him again.” But he knew, he knew, that if somebody like Kwan showed up at his dad’s place, his dad would charm them, wrap them around his finger, convince them it was all a misunderstanding, these teenagers are hard work, haha. And somehow, Ajax would lose everything again.

But Kwan nodded slowly. “How about Athens, then?”

“Athens, Georgia?” said Ajax, bewildered by the subject change.

“Athens, Greece.” Kwan moved to another portal. “It’s actually a little outside our criteria for a permanent portal these days, between its location and its population, but there’s a historic attachment to the place…” The portal activated. “And there’s been unusual activity there, probably as a result.”

Ajax followed Kwan through the portal and onto the streets of Athens. The transition was much smoother when he wasn’t trying to ride the portal’s tail. The afternoon Mediterranean sunlight flooding the city dazzled him, and Kwan caught his shoulder as he stumbled. “It’s too early in the day to be drunk, kid, even for two tourists like ourselves.”

Ajax smiled, lifting his face to the sun. It was unreal how much he’d missed it. For a moment he could do nothing but revel in the light beating on his closed eyelids, and the salty-sweet scent of the air. Finally, he gave in to Kwan’s tugging and walked along beside him.

The street they’d emerged on was narrow, but Ajax soon realized it was a major thoroughfare through the city. Balconies jutted out from every building, filled with plants and draped with colorful fabrics. Green trees with spiky leaves crowded against crumbling walls of a golden stone that faded to grey in places. And high above the city on a flattened hill was a pillared white building he was sure he recognized.

The primary occupation of Athenians seemed to be arguing. Ajax wasn’t sure if that was normal or not. “Sometimes I can hear the Awakened. When they fight,” he offered to Kwan.

“A good skill,” said Kwan absently.

“Are we going to find and fight something, then?”

“Maybe. If I spot a good opportunity. I’m not the same kind of backup you’d get from a working pair, you know.” Kwan gave Ajax an amused look. “We retired Nightlights tend to be a bit rusty.”

“So what are you testing me on, then?” demanded Ajax. But Kwan didn’t answer. He just continued strolling down the street. Muttering, Ajax followed along, but soon he was absorbed in looking around.

When Kwan stopped dead, Ajax didn’t notice at first, distracted as he was by the scenery. But then he saw what Kwan had seen. Something odd had just stepped around the corner. It walked on two legs like a man, but goggles extruded from its face, and the hands that held a tablet computer had exquisitely long fingers. The face under the goggles was gargoyle-like, and the figure itself was earning plenty of attention, although everybody seemed to think it was in a costume of some sort. That, Ajax conceded, could just be possible. But everybody else couldn’t see the Awakened that paced around it.

Ajax had a cold flashback to his first cambion, Descry, and the pack of Awakened it had controlled. It had been the pack of Awakened that had murdered Leo, technically. And now there was another one, not at night, but during broad daylight, in a busy city street.

The gargoyle cambion looked up at the roofs, then did something with its tablet. Ajax’s world shuddered. The crowds of people staggered as if the ground itself was moving. When the traffic light turned green, the accumulated traffic didn’t move. A woman near Ajax sank to the ground, putting her head on her knees and closing her eyes.

Ajax spread his hands. He didn’t feel sleepy at all. He felt energized. He felt empowered.

“Ajax,” said Kwan, his voice strained. “Don’t move.” Ajax hesitated for only a moment. Then he darted toward the cambion like he’d been launched from a slingshot.

But the cambion took one look at Ajax and ran, leaving its pack of Awakened behind. Ajax plunged into the midst of them, swinging the glowing weapon in his hand. He could destroy all of them easily, and catch up to the cambion, pin it down, drag it back to Kwan. The first Awakened melted away at a brush from his weapon, he was that powerful—

The strength ebbed away like somebody had pulled a plug. The loss so shocked him that his weapon vanished. His knees wobbled with a wave of exhaustion. Four hungry Awakened surrounded him. Four. He hadn’t bothered counting before, when they’d been as blades of grass. Now, four seemed a bit… challenging.

He concentrated and brought out his weapon again, just in time to deflect a lunge from one of the nightmares. He let the momentum of another carry him down before he twisted and rolled away, getting out from the center of the knot with only a scrape down his back.

A sword, flickering like a badly-animated cartoon, flashed past Ajax and dispatched the Awakened who’d scraped him. Kwan lunged and caught another one with the edge of his strange blade before a flicker made the blade slide intangibly through the monster.

It was enough, though. The exhaustion left by the ebbing of the strength faded almost as quickly as the strength itself had. Ajax scrambled to his feet, brought his own weapon around and together Kwan and Ajax and finished off the remaining Awakened.

Afterward, Ajax leaned on his weapon, grinning at Kwan. Kwan kicked his blade. “Put that away before people notice even more.”

Only then did Ajax realize that the city street had returned to normal. Traffic moved again, with much honking of horns. The lady who had fallen asleep on the sidewalk rose to her feet, looking bewildered. The world had righted itself.

But Kwan wasn’t grinning. He looked grim. “Let’s head back to the Tower. I’m sorry, Ajax, but you aren’t going to be assigned a novitiate anytime soon. I gave you one command, in a moment of crisis, and you did the exact opposite. You, of all possible novices, need to learn to obey instructions.”

Ajax stared at him, unsurprised but angry all the same. He thought about running away again, losing himself in this beautiful old city. The temptation surged, climbing up his spine, almost overwhelming with the promise of freedom. He almost gave in.

But then he remembered Natalie’s face a few inches from his own in the gloom, and his rage drained away, just like the strength, just like the exhaustion. He ducked his head, and noticed the tension leaving Kwan’s shoulders as he did. Then, like somebody who had something to prove, he followed Kwan back to the tower.

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