Aquerna - Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth
By Diane Castle
Anna yawned a gigantic yawn when her alarm clock went off. She didn’t really want to get up, but it was time to get going. She had to shower and stuff before Civics class. She really wished Mrs. Devon would turn into a better teacher and give lectures that were more interesting and stuff. On the other hand, she had permission to do her Civics talk on Ohio, the ‘Mother of Presidents’. And she remembered a bunch of the stuff about it from her class last year. And she’d already looked up the stuff about the eight presidents from Ohio by going to a bunch of websites, and got Ellen to print off the webpages, so she just had to write down the pieces she wanted, and turn it into a short talk, and practice it a bunch. Ellen wasn’t going to start on her talk until she had to, which Anna thought was kind of a bad idea. But Ellen was busy working on a gyroscope-thing for her new motorized whatever, and she was too involved in it to do some of the stuff Anna thought she ought to be doing. At least Ellen was going to Civics class, and she was studying for the weekly quizzes. Some.
Anna slipped on her bathrobe, grabbed her shower caddy, and yawned her way down to the bathroom. There was only one person in the showers and no one waiting, so this was perfect. Anna just loved getting to sleep in on a dark winter day and then shower without a line of other girls pushing her to hurry up and stuff.
While she showered, she thought about her date Saturday night with Jerry. Things with Jerry were going so great! And he even took her out on a date when he was in the middle of a huge project for Workshop. Gary said that meant Jerry really liked her, because normally a deviser would just bury himself in his lab and forget all about stuff like girlfriends and food and sleep. As long as he had a pot of the Workshop coffee, he’d keep going until he finished, or he passed out. Sometimes both at the same time. Anna would’ve asked Gary a lot more about that stuff, but everyone else started picking on Gary about his dopey inventions, and she never got the chance, and then later on she forgot to ask. And anyway, she was really sure Gary hadn’t tried to invent a combination booger picker and back scratcher, like Alan said.
She ate a granola bar while she got dressed, and then she hiked down to central campus. It was cold out, and another storm had dumped more snow overnight, but the walkways were already clear. She was sure it was another one of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures. She wondered how early they had to get up to clear all the main paths before the students were rushing to breakfast and stuff like that. She was glad she didn’t have that job. She kind of checked out all the trees she walked by, looking to see how their branches were doing, and if any of them were overloaded with snow. She hadn’t looked to see if it was a green flag day, so she didn’t leap up into one of the trees by the path and shake off some of the upper branches. Because it looked like it was gonna be in trouble if more snow fell on top of the snow that was already making the top branches sag like that.
She got a paper cup of coffee for class, and she didn’t put any milk or sugar in. She really wanted to put in a lot of milk, and a couple of the packets of sweetener, but she figured it would be better if she didn’t. The whole point was having something hot and bitter to keep her awake in class, not something sweet and yummy that would let her fall asleep.
But she ended up getting to the classroom about ten minutes early, and nobody was there except Mrs. Devon, who was writing notes on the board in her scritchy way she had that made the chalk screech. Anna was so glad she had those deviser earplugs in her ears, even if they felt weird and she had to go back to her room to get the magnet to get the plugs out of her ears.
She put her backpack in her chair and skittered down to talk to her teacher. “Umm, Mrs. Devon?”
Mrs. Devon stopped writing and gave her a smile. “Yes dear? Do you want to change your topic?”
“Umm, no ma’am,” Anna said. “I like it. I already got all the information printed off and stuff.”
“Then what did you want to ask… Aquerna, isn’t it?” Mrs. Devon asked.
Mrs. Devon asked, “Is that Latin?”
Anna shook her head no. “No ma’am, it… Well, it’s Middle English.”
Mrs. Devon gave her a smile. “That’s really novel. So many people just give themselves a name like Energy Boy.”
Anna said, “It means ‘squirrel’ in Middle English, ‘cause I have, well, squirrel powers.”
Mrs. Devon said, “And you decided on a sophisticated name, instead of calling yourself Squirrel Queen or The Brown Squirrel.”
Anna shrugged, “There’s a Marvel Comics character called Squirrel Girl, so I couldn’t use anything too close to that. And then there’s this girl I know who’s really smart, and she knew that Aquerna meant squirrel in Middle English, and she suggested it, so that’s what I took.”
Mrs. Devon nodded. “But still, you could have picked one of the boring names, like ‘whatever-lady’. You know, like Spider-Man.”
Anna said, “Well, I’m an Avatar, and I think he got his powers from a radioactive spider bite or something.”
Mrs. Devon gave her a smile like she was thinking of a happy memory. “Back when I was a girl, we didn’t understand radiation at all. It was like magic. So whenever a movie or a comic book needed to explain something ridiculous, like ‘spider powers’, it was always ‘radiation’. Radiation did it! Like that somehow could explain things.”
And so Anna ended up having a really nice talk with Mrs. Devon, instead of asking about the homework assignments like she was going to. Mrs. Devon was really friendly and stuff. Anna would’ve loved to just chat with her about things.
Still, that didn’t make her a good teacher. Once class started, and Mrs. Devon started talking about the history behind some of the Amendments to the Constitution, Ann had to start taking sips of her coffee, because Mrs. Devon was really being boring. Didn’t stuff like women getting the right to vote in elections kind of have to be interesting? Anna didn’t think her junior high school back in Zanesville was very good, but her teacher for history had been a lot better than this. Anna really wished she knew Mrs. Devon so well she could talk to her about being a better teacher. Not that she ever knew any teacher well enough to do that, but she kind of liked Mrs. Devon now, and she felt bad that everyone thought she was a lousy teacher.
She walked over to lunch with Ellen and Gina and Baird, which she liked better than ‘Froggy’, and Gina called him Baird all the time anyway. Anna kind of wondered if Gina was sweet on him, because he really was a nice guy. He even put up with Ellen’s deviser questions about his powers. On the other hand, they were walking in front of the TNT guys, who were making rude comments about her butt. And when they were saying that her butt twitched a lot, that made it really hard for her to not twitch any, and that was just really embarrassing. But she wasn’t going to think anything bad about her hearing, because that was one of her new year’s resolutions. She was just going to think bad things about those guys, because they were saying really nasty things about her behind, and she was sure someone like Lancer or Thunderbird would’ve just flown right over and punched those guys if he had heard the gross stuff they were saying. And anyway, her butt was so not like an apple!
Then lunch was pretty good, except now they were over in Dunn Hall in a crowded little place that was like her old junior high lunchroom, and not all fancy like the Crystal Hall. And it was really crowded, and the Underdogs didn’t have a good spot. Back on Saturday, on the first day when everyone was eating in there, Nate tried to stake out a really good table over by the far wall, where the windows were, and he got chased off by the Bad Seeds. And the New Olympians. And the Capes. And maybe five other groups. So the Underdogs ended up over where the doors were, and where everybody stood in line to go through the lunch line. They were over there, with the Goths and a bunch of the other loser groups. The Kimbas just took a table in the middle of the room and pretty much ignored everyone else, like they were saying ‘we want to sit here and if you don’t like it just try something and we’ll beat the snot out of you’. There was a whole section there in the middle that was all groups like that. Outcast Corner had a table near the Kimbas, and Pan-Asia, and the Grunts, and a couple other groups that nobody in their right mind would mess with.
Alan said, “Man, I just hope they don’t serve chili while we’re all trapped in here with no vent fans or anything.”
“Hey! Screw you too!” Nate complained.
Gary just grinned. “Oh, good point there. In a confined space like this, there could be fatalities!”
Mindy said, “Not to mention all the people with permanently burned nostrils.”
“Hey!” Nate snapped. “Knock it off!”
Lucille just said, “Now Nate…”
Lucille went on, like she hadn’t heard him, even if most of the guys at the table were snickering. “If you do eat chili while we’re in here, I’ll expect you to go eat outside the cafeteria.”
“Jesus. You burn a hole through one stinking couch, and do they ever let you forget it? No!”
“Boy, ‘stinking’ is right. That couch needed to be aired out in a wind tunnel!” groused Trish.
And most of the table got in on the act, giving Nate grief about the couch, and about stinking up their table, and all the other stuff Nate had done. It was pretty hard to eat lunch and not laugh with a mouth full of food. Anna kept looking over at Ree and Luce and having to look away to keep from laughing. And one time she was sure Ree was about to have milk squirting out her nose.
She and Ree giggled most of the way to escape class. They took their usual seats and waited for Mr. Robertson to show up. He wasn’t ever late, but sometimes he only made it into the room like a second before the bell. And sometimes he came in with a box of stuff to show the class, like the time he came in with a whole bunch of really old legcuffs and stuff that looked like they were hundreds of years old and right out of an old movie about King Arthur. But today he had what looked like a big canvas bag, all rolled up.
“What do you think it is?” whispered Ree. Ree always knew she could whisper really quietly, and Anna would hear it.
Anna just wrote ‘no idea’ on Ree’s notepaper. It wasn’t until Mr. Robertson unrolled the stuff on the desk that Anna got it. After all, when you got what looks like a big canvas blouse, but the sleeves are extra long and don’t have an opening, and the ends of the sleeves have buckles and straps and stuff, it doesn’t take a super-genius to figure it out.
Mr. Robertson grinned, in that sort-of-crazy smile he had when he couldn’t wait to show some weird new thing and then escape from it himself. “Today, we’re going to talk about the… straitjacket!” He looked at the front row of students. “Hey Peccary, you’re strong. How about you buckle me up in this really tightly?”
“Okay,” Peccary said, even if he didn’t sound all that excited about it. Mr. Robertson had been making Peccary sit in the front row since the second class, and he’d been making Peccary help out in the class demonstrations since the third class.
Mr. Robertson talked the whole time Peccary was putting him in the straitjacket and tightening it up. “An old-fashioned straitjacket, with ordinary canvas and ordinary stitching, would hold up to a baseline human. Even a baseline who’s been taking steroids. But it certainly wouldn’t hold up to someone like Peccary, who has strength that’s up in the Exemplar-3 class. Then there are the deviser drugs like Boosterin. They jack up baseline strength, even if they tend to make already-nutty people more or less psycho, which tends to end up with them needing to be put in a straitjacket. And then there are all the superpowered folks who aren’t mutants. So they ended up having to make better straitjackets that someone like Peccary can’t rip apart. So what do you do? I’ll show you.”
He turned to Peccary. “Okay, pull my arms across my front and buckle the straps together behind me… Yep, like that… Now pull that crotch strap between my legs and buckle it tightly to the buckle below my arms.”
Mr. Robertson waited a second while Peccary did the buckle and pulled the strap. Then suddenly he said in a really high voice, “That’s good!” He sounded like a cartoon character who’d been hit in the hmm-hmm. The whole class laughed.
Then Mr. Robertson went back to his normal voice and said, “Okay, take a seat. I want you watching this really carefully.” After Peccary sat back down, Mr. Robertson turned his back to the class and said, “Now watch what I do with my arm. This is the crucial trick. It takes a lot of practice, and a lot more flexibility than you’re likely to have unless you really work at it.”
Anna watched excitedly. It was like watching a magic show. Mr. Robertson did this weird movement that looked like he was dislocating his shoulder, and then somehow his arm was sliding out of the sleeve and down the inside of the chest part, and then his fingers were peeking out the bottom of the straitjacket, and undoing the belts, and loosening the back parts. And in no time, he had it off over his head. Anna had a sudden impulse to start clapping. It was just that amazing.
Mr. Robertson said, “Okay, I don’t expect anyone in the class to be able to escape one on the first try, but I want all of you to know the basics. So now I’m going to show you the arm movements without the straitjacket on, so you can get a better idea of how this should work. Then I’ve got four different sizes of straitjacket, and maybe we could get some volunteers to try them out. Like… umm… OMAG. You can try the extra-large. Peccary, you can try the large. Skillset, you can try the medium. And the small…” He looked around the room. “Aquerna. You can try the size small.”
“Okay,” Anna squeaked. She looked at Ree nervously. “I can’t get out of that!”
Ree whispered, “They can’t either. Just try. You did really good on the ropes, you know.”
“But that’s different!” she whispered miserably.
But it was a teacher’s orders, so Anna went down and stood next to Skillset and Peccary and OMAG, who kind of looked like he could rip one of those straitjackets apart with his bare hands. She sort of wondered what kind of codename OMAG was, and since he wrote it in all capital letters, maybe it was some kind of abbreviation thing. But it still looked weird. Not that someone named ‘Aquerna’ had a lot of room to talk.
Mr. Robertson got some people to come down and put the straitjackets on them, and Ree volunteered to help Anna, so Anna was okay with that part. It would’ve been really icky if Mr. Robertson put the thing on her and did all that stuff, especially that strap that went up through your crotch. Eww. Plus, Anna trusted Ree not to pull anything too tight and hurt her.
And the whole trust thing turned out to be pretty important, when the guy strapping Peccary pulled on his crotch strap and Peccary went “AACK!” And since Peccary was like Exemplar-3 strong, that guy must’ve pulled really hard on that crotch strap.
“Oops. Sorry,” the guy said in a tone that really sounded like he wasn’t sorry one little bit and he’d done it on purpose.
Peccary muttered, “After class? You better run.”
But the guy just laughed. Anna didn’t know the guy, even though it wasn’t a big class. But she wondered if maybe he was even tougher than Peccary.
Anyway, once Anna was all stuck in the straitjacket, she couldn’t move. She tried her hardest to do the shoulder thing Mr. Robertson did, but all she manages to do was make her shoulder hurt. OMAG was straining so hard his face was turning red, and Peccary was rolling on the floor trying to get loose, but Anna just tried to stand still and do the shoulder trick. She just couldn’t get it!
Finally, Mr. Robertson called time. “All right, get ‘em out of those things. I hope everyone saw that these things are too strong to rip apart. They’re not kleenex, y’know!” As Ree helped her out of the thing, Mr. Robertson said, “Skillset, good job. You got farther along than most people.”
Skillset said, “Well, I could feel what you did when you were wearing it, so that made it a lot easier. I just couldn’t get my shoulder to move that far.”
Anna sat down and asked, “Psst. Is my hair okay?”
Ree said, “It’s a little messed up, but not much.”
Anna decided she’d better go into a bathroom and fix it before she went to martial arts. She didn’t want one of the girls like Blitz or Alakazam to make fun of her.
Mr. Robertson let some more of the class try the straitjackets, but nobody else got it even a little bit. Anna wondered just how long Mr. Robertson practiced for this stuff.
Then, once class was over, she hurried to check her hair in the nearest bathroom before she rushed off to martial arts. And it was a good thing she checked, because she totally had bad hair after getting that stupid straitjacket pulled on over her head and then off again.
Then, in martial arts, after warm-ups and exercises, Chaka came over to their group! Sensei Tolman was kind of strict with her, but Chaka just grinned and nodded and said, “Hai, sensei” like she was supposed to. And Chaka was there to work on the kama and the fighting claws, which meant Anna was going to be doing stuff with her! Boy, just thinking about it kind of made Anna nervous, because Chaka was so great at martial arts, and Anna wished she could be that good some day.
Sensei Tolman had Shadowolf do the standard versions of the kata for fighting claws, and then she had Anna step through her own versions. Anna felt really nervous about acting like she had her own personal katas, ‘cause they were just the regular katas with some little tweaks here and there. And she also didn’t feel good about the thing that Shadowolf had learned three katas for fighting claws that she hadn’t, even if she’d been learning katas for the kamas too. But Chaka just watched her and Shadowolf, and then sensei Tolman showed Chaka four more advanced katas.
After that, Chaka had some questions. “So, Aquerna, you’ve got your katas adjusted a bit so your Ki flows more smoothly. That an Avatar thing?”
Anna tried not to duck her head or anything, but she admitted, “Umm, yeah. It just feels better, and my squirrel spirit likes it better.” Chaka just nodded, and then asked sensei Tolman a couple questions about the advanced katas.
Then Chaka strapped on a pair of fighting claws, and did her usual awesome stuff. At first, Chaka was stepping through the katas they showed her. Then she started combining katas. Then she started making up her own moves and putting new things in! Then she started going faster and faster, until she looked like a super-fast blur even to Anna’s better-than-normal eyesight. It was like watching Bruce Lee, only speeded up about ten times.
When Chaka finally stopped for a second, sensei Tolman showed her another half dozen katas, and let Chaka work through them too. Then sensei Tolman said, “Aquerna, would you demonstrate the katas for kama? Please show Chaka the standard form, and then your altered form for each kata.”
Anna gulped, but said, “Hai, sensei.” After all, what else could she say? She sure couldn’t say she was embarrassed because she didn’t think she was good enough to be showing the katas for someone like Chaka. Even if she’d been practicing in her room whenever she got bored with civics homework. Not that she had kamas in her room. No way. But she’d borrowed a pair of drumsticks, and she just pretended they were real kamas.
So she did it. She moved through each kata, carefully doing it the real way, and then showing Chaka how she did it. Chaka just watched her like a hawk. It was so much like being watched by a big flying predator that her squirrel spirit even got edgy about it. It was almost like Chaka could see inside her too. Maybe, if her squirrel spirit was that nervous, Chaka really could see inside her.
After she finished, sensei Tolman took the kamas and showed Chaka six more katas. Well, when sensei did the katas, they all looked incredibly cool and dangerous. Anna was sure that when she did ‘em they just looked kind of lame and dorky.
Anyways, once Chaka got to handle a pair of kamas, she started doing stuff that you weren’t even supposed to be able to do with kamas. How the heck could you spin ‘em around your hand like a cheerleader’s baton, when they weren’t anything close to balanced? And Chaka made those kamas look like the coolest martial arts weapon ever. Well, she made everything she touched look like the coolest thing ever. If Anna ever started learning the meteor hammer, she’d probably be stuck working with a dopey old rope dart for probably a year. Chaka was whipping that meteor hammer around like Jet Li in a couple days, and she was already good enough with it to spar with someone like Bladedancer or Swordmaiden. Anna just wished she could be that good some day. Even if she had to practice every day for about sixty years.
So that was a really cool class. Especially when Chaka sparred against Aztecka. They were both so fast and so strong it was like watching one of those kung-fu movies. Or maybe one of the Superman movies. And Chaka was using a meteor hammer and Aztecka was using a sword! Anna just knew the next people wouldn’t be able to match that.
So sensei Ito called Anna up. She grabbed her kamas and got ready to face Shroud. Which was hard. Because Anna worked out against Shroud sometimes when Shroud was playing ‘person simulator’. There were a couple days already where sensei Ito had Shroud look like a person, but with these gray pads all over her. And if you hit the red pads hard enough to take out your opponent, the pad turned red. Or you could slice ‘em off her body for a win. Which sounded a lot more icky than it really was, because you couldn’t hurt Shroud no matter what you did. Even if you sliced right through her neck, she’d just say “Good job” and go back to sparring. And there was no blood or other gross stuff, because it was kind of like Shroud was really just air inside, with knives and stuff hidden in there for extra weapons. Anna didn’t get how Shroud could do it, but it didn’t feel like magic. A lot of times it kind of felt like a spirit to her Avatar power, but Anna didn’t get how you could be a spirit and a person too, so she just figured she’d have to wait and take those Avatar classes and find out.
Shroud didn’t look like a person now. She looked like Shroud. Which would’ve been really scary if Anna didn’t know Shroud was nice and all. But Shroud was a gray shape that was only mostly human-looking, with a creepy cape that was blowing in the wind, except they were inside and there wasn’t any wind. And stuff was coming out of her body in ways that stuff wasn’t supposed to come out of a body. Chains and knives and stuff. And seeing a knife just sort of slide out through that white stuff that looked like skin but wasn’t? Really, really groty. Just ‘urp all over the floor’ groty. Then the chains were whipping around her, and the knives were on the ends of thin cables and were writhing in the air like flying cobras or something, and it was just pretty darn creepy.
Plus, there was that whole ‘you can’t hurt me even if you stab me with a sword’ thing, which was kind of reassuring, just in case something accidental happened with the kamas, and kind of not at all reassuring, like Shroud wasn’t even really human or something. And there was something else really weird, like lines or something running along the cables to the knives, and along the chains. Anna had felt it before some of the times when sparring with Shroud, but it was a lot more obvious with those knives-on-cables deals. Anna wasn’t sure just what it was, but maybe it was related to her being an Avatar, so maybe Shroud was really some kind of spirit, or maybe Shroud had some sort of spirit like she did, or maybe it was something her squirrel spirit was picking up. She didn’t know, and it would be really nosy and not nice to ask.
But once they started sparring, Anna realized she had a big problem. It was like fighting, well, she didn’t know what. She leapt in and sliced with both kamas, and dodged the knives when Shroud counter-attacked, but there wasn’t any way to stop Shroud. She tried a couple things, and the best she managed to do was slicing through a couple of the cables for the knives. That made the knives drop to the ground. But Shroud still had more knives, and all those chains, and everything. Anna knew she was strong enough to pull one of those chains loose if Shroud wasn’t careful, but she also knew Shroud knew that trick from her doing it to her just last Friday, and Shroud already had a counter: just go with the pull and jump on her and wrap Anna up in all those chains until she couldn’t get loose.
Anna tried her Squirrel Scampers Over Tree Trunk move, which always made her feel embarrassed when she thought about the name, because having moves with Oriental names was just way beyond where someone like her really was. It turned out to be a really bad idea. She caught Shroud off-guard, ran up her front and down her back, and…
And she found out Shroud could do those chain moves without even looking behind her. Anna was wrapped up in maybe five chains before her feet even touched the ground, and then Shroud flipped her flat on her back before she could even try to get free.
But Anna wasn’t ready to give up. She took up her stance and waited until sensei told them to start, and then she leapt over Shroud to try and attack from behind. But it didn’t do any good. Shroud tried to attack her, but Anna blocked a couple chain attacks and leapt out of the way. And they kind of had a stalemate there for a little bit. Anna couldn’t get in a decent attack and do anything, but Anna was fast enough to dodge anything Shroud tried, and then leap out of the way. Shroud tried to herd her out of the sparring circle a couple times, but Anna just waited until Shroud had her near an edge, and then leapt way over her head back to the middle of the circle. Anna thought it was going to end in a draw, when Shroud did the herding thing one more time. Only that time, when Anna leapt over her, Shroud went straight up and grabbed her from behind in the chains and dumped her on the mat. Rats!
Still, Anna whispered, “Good job” to her. After all, it was a good job, and she totally outsmarted Anna, which just made Anna feel kind of dumb. There had to be something you could do against someone like Shroud. Maybe Phase would have a good idea. If she could get up the nerve to ask her, since Shroud was one of Phase’s teammates and all.
Anna sat back down, wondering if she was gonna have a couple bruises from landing on the mats while wrapped up in those chains. And how was she gonna explain that if one of the gang saw the bruises? At least the swim test was over, so nobody was going to see her in a teeny swimsuit for a long time.
Then she was real surprised when Phase got called back up. After all, Phase already sparred with Interface, which Anna thought really looked like Phase was taking it easy on Interface, so maybe sensei Ito was mad at Phase for not trying harder. But Phase just sort of smashed Força. It was amazing. Força tried pretty much everything, and nothing seemed to hurt Phase, and then Phase just went bam with that baton thing, and Força got knocked all the way out of the sparring circle like he was hit by Lancer or something. And then Força did some more of his cartwheel-y stuff, and Phase just stood there and Força’s feet went right through Phase and Phase just went kapow with one fist and Força was down so hard sensei ended the match. So then Anna heard sensei tell Phase she needed to fight tougher opponents, which Anna totally believed, but Phase didn’t look very happy about it.
And, like always, there were so many cool matches Anna would’ve paid money to get to sit and watch, even if she didn’t know where she’d get the money for it. Chaka was always amazing to watch, and Tennyo was especially awesome, and Judicator just looked like she was right out of a ‘swords and sorcery’ book. Anna liked Judicator, because Ree and Luce said she was really nice and really good at helping people.
Then in the showers after class, Aztecka was still pretty mad at Chaka for doing that paralyzing thing which looked impossible to Anna. Chaka just shrugged and said, “Hey, you’re really good, but you still gotta watch out, ‘cause you over-extend some of the time, and that leaves you open to attacks. If you wanna spar with me some more, I’m all about that, ‘cause you’re good.” And then Chaka’s teammates started teasing her about the paralyzing attack, and it had some some kind of name like ‘Cobra Fang Nerve Strike’, but Anna couldn’t be sure because they kept calling it different things. But from what Generator said, it sounded like they already knew it didn’t work on Tennyo or Shroud. And then Chaka started whining like a little girl for Tennyo to let her have a lightsaber too and not to hog ‘em all. And it was really funny. Even Aztecka was grinning before Chaka finished.
“You think it’s this funny in the boys’ locker room?”
“Maybe. Interface is pretty darn funny.”
Chaka added, “And Lancer’s pretty snarky, once you get him going. Those quiet guys, they’re deep sometimes.”
Alakazam sounded kind of mean when she said, “You going to go chase after him too?”
Tennyo said, “Naw, Toni’s already filled her ‘white guy’ quota for the year.”
Anna thought Chaka would be mad at that, since it sounded kind of, you know, racist. But maybe Tennyo was a lot friendlier with Chaka than you thought, because Chaka just laughed. And Generator giggled.
Chaka just grinned, “I barely got enough time for the BF I do have. I’m not looking around elsewhere.” She looked over at Alakazam and said, “Hey Kaz, ya think you could find someone for Mace, and get him off my caboose? ‘Cause he’s bein’ a pain again.”
Sometimes the showers after martial arts class were almost as cool as martial arts class. At times like that, she really wished Ree was taking the class with her, just so Ree could be part of the coolness that was going on.
Monday night dinner was getting to be like every meal in Dunn Hall. The food was okay, but it was pretty crowded, and the Underdogs couldn’t just go find a table really far away from the tough teams in the middle of the room. The tough teams weren’t even sitting in the middle of the room here. Well, maybe they were, since Outcast Corner and the Grunts and the Kimbas and Pan-Asia and the Monster Squad were taking tables in the middle of the room. The official powers of the school were over on the good wall, where the food line didn’t stand right next to them.
And Anna was telling everybody about class. “So then Mister Robertson gets Peccary to pull the strap that goes between his legs and buckle it up. And he waits until Peccary buckles it and snugs it up. And then he makes this real high-pitched squeak and says ‘You got it!’ and-”
Ree said, “He said ‘that’s good’.” And Ree did a better job of imitating him too.
Anna just said, “Oh yeah, Ree’s right. So anyways, then…”
“Uh-oh,” muttered Alan.
“Incoming,” whispered Nate.
Anna looked over, and Phase was heading straight for their table. She heard one of the devisers at the table behind her whisper, “Oh shit, it’s the Goodkind!”
Anna insisted, “Hey, she’s nice.”
Gary muttered, “Maybe to you she is.”
Anna watched as Phase stopped by the head of the table, over by Alan and Trish, who were kind of looking like they thought they were gonna get hit any second. Which was so not fair when Phase never did stuff like that. Well, she was pretty sure anyway, even if there were lots of stories going around.
Phase turned her head a little and said, “Hello Winnie. I heard you did a great job with Chou and Molly.” Well, the words were nice, but Phase kind of sounded like a king saying unimportant stuff to some peon.
Winnie kind of turned white and whimpered. Luce instantly turned her head and said, “Stop scaring her.”
Nate looked at Alan and mouthed, “Yes, mom.”
Anna was pretty sure it was Mindy who whispered, “Oh shit.”
But Phase didn’t get all mad at Lucille. Instead she gave Lucille this put-upon look and said, “Little old me?” like no one would ever believe Phase could be scaring anybody. Even if the whole school knew she took out Fantastico with one punch, even if no one knew how. And it wasn’t like Phase was any good at the modesty thing. She was standing there trying to look not-threatening-at-all, and instead she looked like she owned the whole place but maybe she wanted to share it a little. Meanwhile, Winnie looked like she was about to faint.
Anna tried to help out. She wasn’t sure who she was helping out, but somebody needed some help. That was for sure. She smiled and said, “Hi, Ayla! Thanks for all the chocolates. They were awesome!”
Ayla gave this ‘we are the ruler’ nod of her head. But it helped a lot, because then Mindy said, “Ooh, those chocolate covered blueberries were to die for!”
Alan said, “The truffles were unbelievable.”
Trish moaned, “Oh man, those were the best chocolates EVER.”
Then Gary said, “Yeah. Who does Anna have to beat up this term to get more chocolate?”
Like Anna would hit somebody just to get more of those chocolates! Even if they were really, really, really good… No, that was bad just thinking about it.
But Phase didn’t get mad, or worse, say someone’s name. No, Phase laughed it off like a politician in front of a teevee camera. “Oh no no. No chocolate assault and battery, please.”
Anna was sure it was Nate who whispered, “Damn!”
Anyway, Phase just looked right at her and gave her a big, friendly smile. “I didn’t have a chance to talk to you at class today, so I thought I’d ask you now. I don’t know if you’ve heard I’m going to Boston on Saturday-”
And then the whole table interrupted! Anna was so embarrassed.
“In your own private jet!”
“And you’re takin’ a hundred people!”
“In a 767!”
“And you’re renting out the Goodkind Banking Garden!”
“And you bought the Celtics to play basketball with you!”
“A-and y-you rented a wh-whole f-four s-star r-restaurant.”
But Phase didn’t get mad, or get flustered, or anything. She just stood there like she was used to a crowd of people yelling stuff at her. Anna kind of wondered if maybe Phase really was used to crowds of people yelling stuff at her. Didn’t that happen to Goodkinds whenever they went anywhere? Anna didn’t think being poor was so great, but it would be awful to be a little kid and have total strangers screaming at you and your mother every time you left the house. Phase patiently waited for the noise to die down, and she said, “I wanted to know if you wanted to come too.”
Anna totally missed the rest of what Phase was saying, because her brain just sort of stopped working. Back home, nobody invited Anna to stuff, except her friends who didn’t get invited to the cool stuff either. Well, she wasn’t counting that one dance last year, because she didn’t get to go to it after all. But Phase… one of THE Goodkinds… was asking her. To a big party! In a jet! And a catered lunch! And everything! She pinched herself just to make sure she wasn’t dreaming it all.
Anna finally realized Phase was stopping talking, and was looking at her, just waiting for her to say something. What was she supposed to say? If she said yes, would all her friends get all mad at her for ditching them? She opened her mouth to say she needed to think it over.
Luce kicked her in the shin and gave her a look. Anna knew what that meant. Luce wanted her to go!
Anna kind of exploded, “YES!” And then she realized there was no way she could go to a party like that. “Ohmigod, what do I wear? And what kind of presents do we have to buy, ‘cause I don’t have a lot of money, and I…”
She stopped when she finally realized Phase was holding up a hand. And Phase said the perfect thing. No presents. Nice casual. Nothing fancy. Because Anna didn’t have anything fancy enough to eat out with a Goodkind, and there was no way she could afford to buy a decent present for someone like Phase, who had pretty much everything already. If you could rent a jet, and rent out a place like the Boston Garden for your party, and get the school to let you take a bunch of other students even after the last times you went to Boston, what more did you need? Anna couldn’t even afford to buy good presents for Ree and her family, so what could she possibly get Phase?
She was so relieved! She said, “That sounds great! Where do we meet? When do we meet? Do I need to bring anything? Do I need to do anything with my hair?” She was so excited she could hardly sit still, but she still needed to know stuff.
And Phase just patiently explained what she wanted, like she knew she was going to get her way sooner or later. Anna still didn’t know if the other Underdogs would be mad at her for getting to do something nobody else would ever get to do. But Ree just poked her with her elbow and grinned, “Go! And tell us all about everything when you get back!”
Gary said, “Yeah, and snitch some food for us.”
Alan smirked at Nate and said, “Just as long as it isn’t chili!”
And then the guys were giving Nate a hard time about his poots, and Anna was kind of hoping Phase wouldn’t think they were all a bunch of toilet-humor dorks.
But then Phase excused herself and strolled off, heading away from the Kimba table.
“Psst! Where’s she going?”
“Christ, look at her, she acts like she’s the queen of the whole school!”
“Well, she’s a Goodkind. Isn’t she?”
“She doesn’t have to walk around like she owns the whole damn place.”
Ree said, “Anna, look where she’s going!”
Well, she was already looking. Because Ayla was walking right over to the New Olympians. And she was talking to Imperious and Majestic.
Luce said, “Wow, she like knows everybody!”
Nate said, “Sure, we all know everybody. We just don’t get to talk to ‘em.”
Alan said, “Sure we can talk to ‘em. As long as we clean their boots with our tongues first.”
Anna said, “Ayla wouldn’t ever do like that.”
Trish said, “Yeah, looks like she’s schoolin’ ‘em over there.”
Mindy said, “Boy, Majestic really hates Phase. Bubble said Phase really kicked her ass in some fancy world lit course last term.”
“Is she inviting New Olympians too?”
Anna winced a little, because she didn’t think she would be all that happy being at a party with a bunch of New Olympians looking down at her all the time. And it looked like Prism was saying yes, so that would be kind of extra embarrassing, because of that whole crush thing she had back in the fall. She said, “It looks like she’s just inviting Prism and Judicator.”
Luce said, “Ooh, Prism! You can have a private chat with him about stuff!”
Anna firmly said, “I am so over him.”
Ree said, “And Jude is nice. She really helped me a lot last term with the girls next door.”
The whole table watched as Phase went over to the food line, and then went over and invited some of the Outcasts. Mindy said, “Wow, maybe she really is inviting a hundred people!”
Anna sort of figured Phase had to be inviting way more than a hundred people if someone like her was making the list. But when she said it out loud, Ree said, “Don’t be dumb. You were nice to her last term, when lots of people weren’t. And she doesn’t like Buster. Remember the chocolates? So even if she’s not inviting half the school, she’d pick you.”
Anna still didn’t see it. Really, if Phase hadn’t come over and invited her personally, Anna wouldn’t have believed it.
Anna adjusted her gi and then skittered out to the mat. She could hardly believe it, but in the locker room Chaka was already talking about using kamas in sparring today! That was crazy. For anybody but Chaka. After all, Anna had only showed her the katas for the kamas just yesterday!
And then out there in practice, Chaka was already about five years ahead of her on the kamas. Anna felt so clumsy and useless and pathetic. And sensei Tolman had to come over and correct her katas a bunch of times, because she couldn’t seem to do ‘em right with Chaka doing things different just a couple feet away, and it was just hopeless. That’s when Anna knew she was never gonna be any good at this. Maybe she should just ask if she could drop out of the class and go do something she was good at. Like climbing trees. She was good at that. It was about all she was good for. Maybe they’d let her drop out of school and just be one of the tree-fixing guys around campus.
Then sensei Tolman had her working against Appaloosa for practice on working against other kinds of weapons. It had turned out Appaloosa wasn’t a Speedster, but another Avatar like her, so he was fast and strong. She’d sparred against him before, and he seemed nice. He could run fast, but not speedster fast, and he couldn’t do the super-speed thing with his strikes and kicks, so that was a lot better. But she just couldn’t focus for some stupid reason, probably because she was just stupid and useless and no good at the kamas, and she just knew sensei Ito would watch Chaka using them and decide Anna was a big waste of time and take ‘em away from her. She got knocked down like a dozen times before sensei Tolman had her just go off to the side of the mat and work on her katas in private while the rest of the class did the real stuff they were supposed to be doing. She tried really hard, but she was having trouble getting back to the way she was supposed to be moving, and she knew it was just pathetic, and she just wanted to go run into the locker room and put on her real clothes and run off to her room and cry for a while, which made her feel like a big baby, and that was even worse.
Anna could hardly watch the sparring. Especially Chaka against Swordmaiden. Normally, she couldn’t keep her eyes off Chaka, but today it just hurt to look. Chaka was so amazingly good, and was doing stuff Anna couldn’t even imagine being able to do, like using the kamas like stilts for her hands when she did a big cartwheel to dodge around Swordmaiden like the stuff Força did, only more amazing. Anna just felt like a total loser. She felt like there was no point in even staying in the class anymore. Like they’d even let her stay, after she messed up really bad in sparring whenever it was her turn.
Anna sat there miserably, and waited. And waited. They didn’t ever call her up to spar against anyone. It felt like her heart was going to sink right through her stomach. She figured they were giving up on her. And why not? She was no good at this. She’d sparred with Appaloosa before and not had so much trouble and not gotten her butt kicked like that. Everyone else was learning and getting better, and she was just getting a billion times worse.
Sensei Ito dismissed the class. Everyone else was running over to the locker rooms, but sensei Ito called her over. He didn’t say it loud, but she still heard him. Anna got up from her sitting position and walked over to where he was standing in the middle of the mat.
Anna tried really hard not to cry while she waited for him to tell her to drop the class. She just stood there in front of him, her eyes burning. She couldn’t even look him in the eye. She really hoped her nose wouldn’t start running too.
“Y-yes sensei?” she managed to say without bursting into tears.
“Would you please show me your katas with the kamas at… one-quarter speed?”
“Yes sensei. I mean, hai sensei.” She didn’t know what else to say or do.
She started out with the four basic katas. And every time, sensei Ito stopped her and adjusted her stance, and adjusted her strikes, and adjusted her movements, until it felt like she was kind of back to where she was at the end of last week. It took like half an hour. Maybe more. But if he wasn’t going to fail her and throw her out of the class, then she was going to try her hardest for him, even if her best was obviously not good enough. She was just too pathetic at this stuff.
Finally sensei Ito said, “That is much better, Anna. Now I want you to go shower, and then practice at one-quarter speed tonight. Then tomorrow, I want you to practice your katas blindfolded.”
Huh? Anna had to ask about that. “Umm, sensei, I’ll do whatever you want, but I’m not good enough to do the blindfolded stuff. Chaka and Bladedancer and them can do that kind of stuff, but I… I’m not good enough.”
Sensei just pursed his lips for a moment. “I am not asking you to fight blindfolded. No, you will be working without anyone else close by. But you need to stop looking at Chaka’s movements. She is not doing the katas you showed her. She is integrating other movements and other forms into her practice. You must not compare yourself to her. Remember, Blitz is a powerful Exemplar and a skilled martial artist, and she cannot compare to Chaka. Blitz will never be able to perform some of the moves with the meteor hammer that Chaka demonstrated after only three or four days of study. This is because Chaka is capable of using her Ki for things which even I would not attempt. In many cases, this is because she is using her Ki for things which others should not attempt.”
“You mean because I’m not good enough?” Anna whimpered.
“No, because she is using her Ki for unnecessary things which you do not need. In some cases, she is using her Ki to perform maneuvers which she should not be doing. Her style is unique to her. Some day she may distill it down to a style which is simpler and cleaner and more usable by others. But for right now, you must not let her skills distract you from what you can do.”
“Now go shower,” he said.
“Y-you mean you’re not gonna fire me? I mean, kick me out?” She could feel her lower lip trembling, and she had to swallow hard to keep from choking on her words.
He looked at her with sad eyes. “No Anna, I am not. If there is one thing you can depend on, it is that as long as you continue to put in as much effort as you have already done, I will never kick you out.”
Anna couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down her face as she said, “Th-thank you sensei,” and then ran off to the showers as fast as she could. She was pretty sure she cried most of the way through her shower, but there was no one else in there by then, so no one stood there and made fun of her.
Then pretty much everybody in the Underdogs noticed she wasn’t happy when they were all sitting at their table in Dunn Hall.
Ree instantly asked, “What’s wrong? Did you get hurt in martial arts?”
Anna sighed, “No, I’m just kind of… really sad from watching Chaka take my weapons and be a million times better than me in like a couple hours.”
Lucille snapped, “Shut up, Nate. You’re not helping.”
But Nate wasn’t done. He frowned, “I’m serious here! We’re talkin’ maybe the greatest martial arts prodigy at Whateley since like… umm… Journeyman! Or Knife-Edge! There’s no way you can be as good as her. I mean, you were telling us about Chaka and the meteor hammers, right? And even the teachers couldn’t believe the shit she was doing? Can any of the teachers do that with those meteors?”
Anna shrugged, “Umm, I don’t think so.”
“So why the hell would you be able to?”
“I can’t,” she said. “I haven’t even touched a meteor hammer.”
Nate rolled his eyes. “NO! Your kamas! So what if Chaka can do crazy-ass stuff with the kamas that you can’t do? Probably nobody else can either!”
Anna shrugged uncomfortably. “I still felt really bad, and I got my katas all messed up, and sensei made me stay like a half an hour extra just fixing everything wrong. And he said I haveta practice blindfolded tomorrow.”
“You have to fight guys blindfolded?” asked Luce, looking horrified.
“No, not like that,” Anna said. “I just gotta practice my katas by myself. And not look at Chaka while I’m working.”
Alan said, “I can see that. I mean, the way she manhandled Montana… That girl is not normal.”
“Even for around here,” said Gary.
“You can say that for pretty much all the Kimbas,” said Trish.
“…that for pretty much all the Kimbas,” said Alan. “Ow! No punching in the bruise!”
Mindy said, “I wanna know who the new girl is they got over there.”
Anna peeked over and said, “It’s Molly. Gateway. She’s Chou’s friend.”
“No! Not her! The other new girl!” Mindy fussed.
Trish said, “Yeah. The one we’ve never seen before.”
Anna took another look. She’d never seen that girl before. But she looked pretty young. Maybe not even freshman age. And… “She’s got a tail!”
Anna said, “Sure I’m sure! She’s got a tail like a monkey, and it’s got a little key on the end.”
“Weird,” said Nate.
“Boy, you sure got good eyes,” said Trish.
“Those Kimbas are like the official school magnets for weirdosity,” said Mindy.
“Unless they’re causing it,” said Gary.
Trish thought about that. “You know, maybe it’s not a new girl. Maybe Fey turned someone into her, and they’re trying to fix her back. Or it’s an illusion and they’re doing something weird.”
“Something else weird,” said Nate. “Cuz it’s not like they’re not making weirdness happen every time you turn around.”
“At least they didn’t stink up the whole pool area,” complained Ree.
“Okay, I did that one,” said Nate. “But what about the shoulder angels?”
Gary said, “Oh yeah, that was Generator. And Bugs. And Phase was wearing the first ones. And we’re pretty sure Generator’s the one who put shoulder angels on Peeper over in the caff and got him in so much trouble. And Dynamaxx said Phase had the balls to wear shoulder angels in Team Tactics class and had ‘em diss Sergeant Bardue and some admiral.”
“Yeah, they’re crazy,” said Alan.
Nate thought for a second and said, “And everyone says they busted up the holographic simulators the same week. And then there was the thing with Chaka and Counterpoint.”
“Now there’s a serious nutcase.”
“Two serious nutcases, if you ask me.”
Nate said, “Then there’s this thing with the Boston trip. And last term, the arena fight against the Young Turks. And the fight before school started. And the fight on Parents’ Day. And the fight against the Alphas. And Chaka fighting Montana. And that thing back in October with Generator and the, umm, ‘noodles’.”
“Oh, ick! That was so gross!” Luce complained.
Winnie said, “I-it was r-really icky. A-and I couldn’t f-figure out h-how she d-did it.”
Mindy said, “Well, she is a deviser, right?”
Nate said, “See? They’re all crazy. I heard Tennyo – after that foodfight thing – was working in the sewers and nearly blew up the whole school. And really, how freaky do you have to be to get somebody like Harry Wolfe to dump you? And Generator and Shroud are both dating Thuban.”
“That’s way too icky.”
Anna asked, “Aren’t they like sisters or something?”
Nate shrugged. “Like I said. Weird. I mean, they’re weirder than the New Olympians and the Alphas and the Capes all put together.”
Anna admitted, “Molly says they do kind of get caught in a lot of crazy stuff. But she says it’s not their fault.”
Luce asked, “Anna, do you think it’s safe to go with the Kimbas to Boston?”
Nate mimicked Lucille’s ‘mom’ tone of voice and said, “And are you going to wear clean underwear in case of a car accident?”
Anna tried to ignore Nate and said to Luce, “Umm, sure. They’re going with like a ton of guests. If they’re asking me, maybe Phase is taking like a hundred kids. Who in their right mind would attack a hundred Whateley kids?”
They spent the rest of dinner guessing about who all Phase would have invited. Everybody knew Phase was mad at a whole bunch of kids on campus. People said she’d had more fights this year than Razorback and Killstench put together. Anna kind of wondered why Phase wasn’t wearing one of those UV armbands if all that was true.
Afterward, Anna walked back to her room with Ellen, and sort of did Civics homework. Almost. She worked on her katas, and sometimes Ellen asked her questions from the assigned reading. But Anna already had her reading for tomorrow done, so she was all set. Even if Ellen was doing her reading the night before, like Ellen always did.
Anna had made some fake kamas which were chunks of broomstick with heavy cardboard ‘blades’ cut to the right shape and duct-taped to the ends of the pieces of broomstick. That’s what she was working with. She was sure she looked stupid doing her moves with the fake kamas, but Ellen didn’t say anything.
Anna worked on her katas until bedtime, making sure she was doing every little step just the way she was supposed to. She was really tired by the time she got in bed, even if she’d only been going at about one-quarter speed most of the time, just like sensei asked her to.
She climbed into her bed and wondered what else would go wrong. She was still waiting for Phase to send someone by and tell her not to show up on Saturday. She still remembered back in fourth grade when Becky Reynolds invited her to that sleepover and she was so excited and then Friday in school Becky and two of her friends walked over at lunch and told her not to come, because some of the important girls coming to the sleepover didn’t want her to be there. So Anna had to go home and tell her mom she got thrown out of the sleepover, and then it turned out her mom and dad had plans that were all ruined because Anna was home instead of at Becky’s all night, and Anna sat on her bed that night and cried.
So if regular people in Zanesville didn’t want her to come just a mile or two over to their parties and stuff, she knew it was pretty much gonna happen that someone rich and important like Phase wouldn’t want her to come to Boston on a jet. She was just hoping that the people Phase picked to tell her wouldn’t humiliate her in front of the whole cafeteria. It would be bad enough when it did happen.
The day had gone pretty good, so far, but Anna didn’t have her hopes up much. Civics had gone really good. Their teacher had told a good story about the nineteenth amendment and how hard it was to get people to support it. And Anna was really pretty sure she’d known all but one of the answers on the weekly quiz.
And there was pecan pie at lunch! Her inner squirrel and her sweet tooth were in total agreement. Pecan pie with lots of pecans was so much better than that raisin pie Trish had gotten her to try the other day, which wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t going to be on her ten most favorite pies list anytime soon.
And then Mr. Robertson had some amazingly cool stuff to show them. He had some official MCO wristcuffs that were supposed to be too tough for even a PK-4 to bust out of, and he’d showed them what the super-tricky locks inside looked like, and he’d picked one while his hands were cuffed behind his back. Nobody else in the whole class had been able to pick a lock that tricky, so she didn’t feel bad she couldn’t either, but Mr. Robertson wanted everyone to work on those kinds of cuffs in class Friday, so she was hoping maybe she could learn to pick them open, which would be really neat.
So she went to martial arts class hoping things would be better than yesterday. Okay, things couldn’t be much worse than yesterday, but she was really hoping things would be back to normal, even if she was supposed to be practicing blindfolded today. So maybe it would be better, since she wouldn’t be watching Chaka do stuff that was making her think she ought to be moving different.
So, after some warm-ups and muscle stretching, sensei Tolman put a blindfold on her and had her work on all her old katas. Anna didn’t feel real bad about it, because sensei Tolman had Shadowolf doing the exact same thing but with the fighting claws, which made Anna wonder if Shadowolf had gotten all messed up on his katas too, or if the blindfold thing didn’t have anything to do with Chaka, or what.
So Anna concentrated real hard on her katas, starting out at maybe one-quarter speed on each and slowly speeding up. But it was a good thing she had really good balance now, because doing all her katas blindfolded was really trickier than it sounded. She heard Shadowolf fall over twice. Not that she was ever going to say anything about it. Anna also heard sensei and the other students in her group showing Chaka about the sais, and she could hear what Chaka was saying too, even if Anna was trying hard not to listen in.
“So, Hulkster, you got your PK thang goin’ on with your sai there?”
Wow. Chaka just sounded so cool. There was no way some little whitebread girl from Zanesville could say stuff like that and not sound like a total dope. Anna knew Chaka and Lancer were on the same training team, but she didn’t know they were really good friends. And she knew they weren’t dating or anything, because Lancer was dating Wallflower and Chaka was dating Thunderbird, and maybe Mace, and maybe Dredz, and maybe a couple other guys, because people talked about her a lot. Anna could practically hear the grin in Lancer’s voice when he answered.
“Toni, you know the answer to that one.”
And Chaka said, “Of course!” in a kind of pushy, stern voice that totally cracked Lancer up, even if Anna had no idea why.
So, while Lancer and the others showed Chaka the katas they knew for the sais, and then sensei Tolman showed Chaka another dozen or so advanced katas, Anna practiced. And, once Chaka started working out and Anna could hear the whoosh of the sais as they sliced through the air, it was probably good Anna wasn’t looking, because she could hear Gavotte and Packrat and even Lancer going ‘wow’ and ‘whew’ and ‘holy cow’ and ‘jeez!’ Plus, a couple times Anna could hear that Chaka jumped up into the air and then landed again, even if she landed really quietly, so Chaka was doing stuff that was totally not in the katas Anna had seen.
And Anna could tell from the sound of the swishes through the air, and how fast they came after each other, that Chaka was doing her own versions of the katas about a hundred times faster than someone new to the sais ought to be able to do ‘em. But that was Chaka for you.
So today was way better than yesterday. And the sparring was amazing! Sensei Ito had Lancer sparring against Tennyo, and it was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen! It was like the videos of maybe Champion against the Green Marauder, or Lady Astarte against Cataclysm, or something like that. Because they were just that awesome. It wasn’t just wow, it was like double wow. Maybe triple wow. They started out fighting on the mat, and lifted off into the air, and fought a real superhero fight in mid-air until sensei called the thing for time. It was probably a good thing sensei called time, because otherwise Anna would’ve sat there staring at the fight for the rest of the day. It was just that terrific.
Compared to that, her sparring was nothing. Sensei paired her off with Shadowolf, which was okay by her. She’d sparred with him a lot, since they were the only two who were learning the fighting claws. So she knew a ton about how he fought. And he knew all about how she fought, too. Well, she thought he did, anyway. So she was using those plastic guards over the blades on her kamas, because if she accidentally hit Shadowolf and she didn’t have the covers over the blades, she could really hurt him bad. It wasn’t like sparring against Chaka, who was impossible to hit, or sparring against Lancer, who was impossible to hurt, or like that. Kamas were as dangerous as a sword.
So anyway, Shadowolf had gotten good enough at his forms that he was going with shadow claws that he manifested, instead of the usual metal-and-wood fighting claws he normally used in practice. Anna had seen him working with his shadow stuff before. So she knew they looked like shadows, but he could make ‘em as hard as a rock. And they looked pretty sharp, so she didn’t want to get hit with ‘em either. Even if they weren’t sharp, Shadowolf was a lot stronger than her, so she could get clobbered if she wasn’t careful. But she was guessing they were sharp.
They started sparring when sensei Ito told them to. She blocked a couple of his attacks and tried to get one of her own in, but he was as fast as she was. And a lot stronger. Well, she knew that already, so she was trying to be careful about it. Her kamas gave her a little extra reach, but they didn’t help with the whole thing that he could pick her up and throw her out of the sparring circle if she just stood there and let him. She had to jump to the back of the ring to avoid getting overpowered with those shadow-looking claws. When he moved in, she jumped over his head and got back to a good spot mostly in the middle of the circle. But he moved right back in on her.
She managed to block most of his attacks, and jump out of the way of the rest. So she was doing sort of okay, even if she was having a lot of trouble getting any of her attacks going. But she messed up and jumped too far back from him when he was pressing his attacks really hard, and she landed with one foot out of the sparring circle, and she lost a point for that. Darn it.
So she was already having a lot of trouble even before he started pulling out more of his shadow powers stuff. At first she didn’t even realize what was going on. She was pretty sure everyone else knew what Shadowolf was doing, and she was probably the last person in the whole room to figure it out. But he moved toward her with a nice, smooth glide-step, and suddenly she couldn’t see. She blinked, and she shook her head, but she couldn’t see anything but solid gray. She wiped her face with the back of her arm, because you can’t wipe your eyes with your fingers when you’re holding razor-sharp kamas, ‘cause that would be bad. And she still couldn’t see.
If she hadn’t heard him moving in on her, she would’ve been toast. He would’ve just zipped right in and clobbered her with those shadow claws. But she heard him move across the mat, maybe six or seven feet away and heading right for her. She jumped for the far side of the sparring circle, and the grayness just kind of blurred and went away. And that was when she saw the gray ‘blindfold’ hanging in the air for a second before Shadowolf made it go away.
She felt really stupid. Shadowolf. Shadow powers. A gray blindfold made out of his shadow stuff. And it took her that long to figure it out. Duh. She just couldn’t figure out why he was wasting a really cool technique when he was sparring against her. He should’ve saved it and used it against someone good.
Or maybe today was the first time he felt ready to use his shadow powers in sparring, and he just got stuck with her instead of somebody good.
So he tried the shadow blindfold trick on her again. But there was a limit on her dumbness, so she didn’t fall for it the second time. As soon as things went gray in front of her eyes, she jumped away from him.
And then she jumped right at him, trying to catch him by surprise. But he had another shadow technique ready for her. Suddenly there was a big patch of shadow all around him, and she couldn’t see where he was. And there was no way she was gonna just jump right into that stuff and flail around like a drunk squirrel or something. He could probably see just perfect in that stuff. He’d clobber her.
So she waited. She couldn’t see him, but she could hear him move. And she could smell him, which she really didn’t want to think about, because he was all sweaty from working hard during the whole class. Well, she couldn’t tell where he was by the smell, just that he was in there somewhere. But she could tell where he was by the sounds. And she could tell which parts of him were moving by where the sounds came from, like if there was a swish from head height downward, he was doing some kind of downward arm strike. And if there was a swish from floor level upward, then he was kicking.
So when he kind of exploded from the shadows right at her, she knew he was coming. Otherwise, he would’ve had her for sure. ‘Cause he was pretty fast. She managed to jump out of the way just in the nick of time.
Then he tried the blindfold trick again, and she jumped away from it. And then he tried a shadow wall behind her to trap her while he moved in at her from the front, but his wall was only like seven feet high, so she jumped over it and got away. So then he tried the patch of shadow thing again, but she just backed up so she had enough time to react when he came charging out of it right at her.
She thought they had to be just about out of time, when he did the blindfold thing once again. Only when she jumped over to the edge of the sparring circle, a patch of shadow the size of a beachball came out of nowhere and pushed her while she was still up in the air, and it pushed her farther away from him. She landed just outside the sparring circle, so Shadowolf got his second point just when sensei Tolman was about to stop the match for time.
So she lost, but she wasn’t upset about it. Shadowolf was way stronger than she was, and he had way cooler powers too, and he was really good with those claws. She didn’t think she could beat him in sparring no matter what she tried. And there was no point in getting upset about it, because there were a ton of people in the class who were just way better than she was.
Like the next set of matches. One match was Chaka against Judicator, and there was no way she was ever going to beat either of them. And another match was Phase against Swordmaiden, and both of them were way out of her league.
But Chaka was just too awesome. Anna watched as Chaka and Judicator started. And at first it looked like Judicator was faster and stronger than Chaka, but just couldn’t land a blow. And Chaka just kept getting faster and faster and faster! Which was just impossible, but Chaka was doing it right there in front of her, so it wasn’t really impossible, it just ought to be. And then Chaka was doing something that was making Judicator’s PK armor explode or break or something. Even with Anna’s eyesight, it still was hard to tell.
Anna totally missed Phase sparring against Swordmaiden. By the time Chaka was all done, Phase was just about finished too. Anna looked over, and Swordmaiden was standing there looking really grumpy, and one of her swords was half gone. It looked like it was cut off with Tennyo’s lightsaber or something. And it was a real sword, too. Anna knew Swordmaiden normally used this sword and armor stuff that she created. Anna didn’t know if it was a Manifestor thing like Iron Star or a PK thing like Judicator, but Anna thought it looked really pretty and pretty scary. But Swordmaiden was using some real swords today, and it looked like Phase just sorta disintegrated one of ‘em, which wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted someone to use on you. Because, you know, disintegrating? No fixing stuff after that. It wasn’t like getting a bruise or even a broken arm.
Anna knew she was so totally outclassed by half the kids in here that it wasn’t even funny. It was just a good thing that most of them weren’t mean about it. In PE back in Zanesville, back when she was a chubby fat loser with ugly glasses who was at the bottom of the social ladder, they’d be doing stuff like volleyball or basketball, and other girls would hit her with the ball, or trip her, or just laugh at how pathetic she was at sports. It was weird that she was now in a PE class with some of the most amazing athletes on the planet, and they weren’t doing that kind of stuff to her. Well, not yet anyway.
She sat and watched the rest of the sparring. She liked watching Interface, because he was really good at martial arts and knew all kinds of cool moves. He wasn’t super fast with the moves, or super strong when he did ‘em. But he was good. Appaloosa was really fast and was running rings around him, but that didn’t stop Interface from smoothly moving about and blocking everything Appaloosa threw his way.
Pretty much everybody was fun to watch. Força and Gavotte sparred too, and that was just sort of like watching a tricky dance routine in a movie. Forca did that dance-fighting thing he did where he was always doing cartwheels and stuff. But Gavotte moved more like a ballerina, doing kicks and spins and sweeps. The two of them kind of countered each other’s styles in weird but pretty ways. Anna really wished she could do martial arts like that and look so elegant and fancy and stuff.
And even the locker room after class was pretty cool. It started when Swordmaiden started complaining a whole bunch about Phase eating her sword when they were sparring. “I’m working on these different forms for different style blades, and I can’t afford to lose swords all the time!”
But Chaka just said, “Well, that’s why ya never stick stuff through Phase. She disintegrates stuff, ya know. Just be glad it wasn’t your arm.”
Swordmaiden gave her a big scowl, which Chaka just ignored, even if Anna would’ve really cringed if Swordmaiden glared at her like that. Then Swordmaiden complained some more. “And it was one of my best swords! It cost my dad a lot of money!”
Nightbane said, “Well, you should’ve stuck with your manifested sword instead.”
Swordmaiden said, “That’s what I said. But Ito’s on my ass about needing to practice with other stuff.”
After some more griping, Tennyo quietly said, “Then ask Phase to buy you a new one. If you ask nice, she might even do it.”
Chaka said, “Sure, can’t hurt to try. Ayla’s got more money than God. And now she’s got Marvel Comics all wrapped up. So if you’ve got a pretty borderline-lawsuit codename or costume, she’s the go-to girl. Right, Shroud?”
Shroud popped her head out from where she was chatting with Generator about something, and said, “Oh yeah! Ya know, Shroud’s a Marvel Comics character, with all that copyright and trademark jazz I don’t get, and Shroud’s got a black costume and sees with mystic vision, pretty much like me, so I was really surprised when I got a personal letter from Marvel Comics telling me it was okay for me to be Shroud, as long as I don’t use a costume too close to their character, and some other piddly stuff. Ayla made ‘em do that. For me!”
Anna just about had to push her mouth closed at that. Everyone knew the comic book companies were really mean about codenames and costumes and stuff. There was no way she could ever call herself ‘Squirrel Girl’ or really use a costume like Squirrel Girl’s in the real world. Not without getting sued and stuff. But Phase got Marvel Comics to do that? For her friend? Wow. Anna couldn’t imagine how much that would cost, even if Phase had to have been working out how to take over Marvel Comics back when Shroud got that letter. Anna wondered if Lancer was going to show up one day and tell everyone his new codename was Power Man or something major like that. One of the codenames people weren’t allowed to use, like Spiderman and Superman.
And if that wasn’t amazing enough, Chaka and Judicator showered while Anna was showering, and they were having a big talk about how Chaka used her Ki techniques to beat Judicator. Chaka was explaining how first she used her Ki to deflect everything Judicator tried. And then she used her Ki to make herself faster and stronger, so she could fight a high-level Exemplar like Judicator. And then she used her Ki like in Dragonball Z. And then she used her Ki to blow up Judicator’s PK armor! Wow! And, while she was explaining the last bit, she was using her Ki to dry off by making the water fly off her body. And then she used her Ki to make her towel wrap around her. Anna couldn’t figure out how you could do that, but Chaka did it right in front of her and acted like it was nothing.
When they moved out of the showers, Sahar told Judicator that Chaka was teaching her to unlock her Ki, but it might be several years before she could do even one or two of those really cool Ki tricks. Anna kind of sighed to herself. She wished she was cool enough to ask Chaka to teach her too.
Then Generator and Shroud started talking about movies, and Anna and Gavotte said some stuff too, and didn’t get smacked down for talking, and so Anna even talked with Generator about movies while they walked out of the lockers. Generator was really into anime, and had gotten the ideas for some of her devises from watching anime stuff, and she’d even gotten some of her things to work, like her armbands that were missile launchers, which Anna totally didn’t get how you could do that, but that was why they were devises. Tennyo was floating right behind them talking with Packrat and Flashbang about Generator and something about some Workshop club that Jerry probably knew all about. Some days, being in that class was so awesome Anna could hardly believe it, because even the showers after class could be awesome.
She spent most of dinner telling Ree and Luce and Trish the story about Chaka and Judicator. Even Nate and Alan and Gary were listening in, even if they were pretending not to.
Ree could hardly believe Chaka could even get a tie against Judicator. “Are you sure? ‘Cause Judicator’s really strong and fast, even without her armor. I mean, some of the girls in Whitman have gotten pretty cranky when he settles arguments and they tried to take it out on her, and no one’s taken her. Not even Tisiphone or Harpy.”
“What about Fractious?” Trish asked. “That girl’s crazy enough to be in Poe, and wouldn’t she have arguments with Judicator like all the time?”
Ree shrugged, “I’ve heard a bunch of ‘em. You know, she’s on my floor. But it’s always just arguing and not screaming or fighting. And it’s always picky stuff, like ‘Arachne left spiderwebs in the bathroom’ or ‘Psydoe left fur in the sink’ or ‘Diamondback left scales in the showers’. Because, you know, she’s got real bad O.C.D.”
“So what happens?”
Ree shrugged. “Usually, Fractious ends up cleaning everything. I bet there’s not a spot in our bathrooms and hallway she hasn’t cleaned a dozen times. And you know that huge purse she lugs around?”
“It’s a genuine Coach satchel purse,” said Trish. “That’s expensive.”
Ree nodded. “Well, she doesn’t carry the usual Whateley kind of stuff in it. It’s all cleaning products. And stuff like rubber gloves and surgical masks and disposable wipes and like that.”
Nate said, “So she’s like Adrian Monk, but carrying everything around for herself?”
Ree sighed. “Maybe worse. From what she’s said, Her O.C.D. used to be under control, but then she hit puberty, and had a growth spurt-”
“Yeah. Those are some nice growths she’s got there,” Alan said with a leer.
Trish hit him on the arm. “Shut up, horndog.”
Ree went on. “So anyway, when her powers came in, it messed her chemistry up even more, and the doctors haven’t been able to get her drugged up enough without turning her into a zombie.”
“A real zombie?” Anna squeaked.
Anna blushed. “Well, around here, you know, it could happen.”
Ree said, “Back around October, they had her on this stuff they thought would work, and it did, but she slept like twenty hours a day and had to be walked to the cafeteria so she’d eat. She didn’t know where she was or anything. It was awful. They had to put her in the hospital until the stuff wore off completely, and then when she got back to her room someone had played a prank on her while she was all doped up, and she went postal, and they had to repair the room. Again. She’s lucky she’s not stuck in Hawthorne.”
“Eww.” Anna didn’t like Hawthorne. It was way creepy, especially with Carmilla and that Fubar guy and Mrs. Cantrel in her floating chair. And she’d heard really gross stuff about Plasmoid and Phlegm and Jimmy T, even if Jimmy seemed pretty nice the time she met him, and he looked really pretty at the Halloween party when he looked like that actress. But that was pretty weird all by itself. If you were a super-duper Shifter, and you were a boy, but you could look totally like a hot girl, and you did it sometimes, wasn’t that kind of… abnormal? But maybe Jimmy T wasn’t really a boy either, because there was an actress named Jimmy or Jimi or something, so maybe Jimmy just looked like whatever sex he – or she – felt like, which was also pretty strange. Anna was totally not used to strange sex stuff. She didn’t even know if there were any gay people in Zanesville, even if everyone said Mark Peeples and Bill Warren were like that and that was why some of the football players beat up Mark last year.
“So how could Chaka even fight Judicator? She’s like a really high-level Exemplar, and so she’s really strong and really tough and really fast, plus she’s got that PK armor she can just pop out whenever she feels like it.”
Anna said, “That’s what I was saying. I didn’t know how Chaka was doing it when I watched her doing it, but they stood there in the locker room and talked about it like it was sharing a new cooking recipe.”
“So how did she do it?” Lucille asked.
“It was these things with her Ki,” Anna started to explain.
“Well DUH on that!” Alan complained. “Ki is her superpower, y’know. She’s little Miss Ki-Nut. So she’s probably all Ki all the time.”
Anna winced a little. “Well, sorta. She made herself faster and stronger, just using her Ki.”
Gary said, “That’s not supposed to be possible unless you’re a tiny bald Oriental guy who’s been doing this stuff for eighty years. And then you still can’t make yourself fast enough or strong enough to fight… What? Judicator’s an Exemplar-5 or -6, right?”
Anna stuck to her guns. “Well, she did it. I saw her. And she told Judicator about it too. And Sahar said Chaka was teaching her how to unlock her Ki and maybe in a few years she’d be able to do one or two of the things Chaka can do.”
“Whoa. Sahar. You wanna stay away from that girl,” muttered Mindy. “She’s bad news with a capital ‘B’. I mean, seriously, do not get on that girl’s radar.”
Anna shrugged. “There’s no way someone like her’s ever gonna notice someone like me. She hangs around with people like Chaka and Tennyo. And that’s just in class.”
Ree nudged her. “So how’d she win just by making herself strong enough and fast enough to fight Judicator? ‘Cause Judicator’s really good at the martial arts stuff too, and she does that whole ‘PK armor and weapons’ thing. She’s fierce.”
Anna said, “Well, then Chaka did this thing she calls the Chaka Chaka Bang Bang, and she blasted Judicator with this blast thing, kinda like Dragonball Z…”
“No way,” Nate said.
“Dude! You’re talkin’ about a girl who can use her Ki to control a freaking tornado! Not to mention she’s crazy enough to jump into a tornado in the first place! O’ course she can do a Dragonball Z thing,” Alan insisted.
Mindy said, “I saw her do one months ago.” Several surprised heads swung her way. “On Parents’ Day.”
Lucille gasped. “Oh! Is that what it was? It was awesome! She did that with Ki?”
Anna said, “And then she did this thing with her Ki where she synched it up somehow with Judicator’s PK power and broke her PK armor like she blasted it with a shotgun.”
“And Judicator just talked with her about it in the locker room? Like she didn’t mind getting her ass handed to her by a nutcase?”
Anna nodded. “Yeah. They were real friendly about it, too. But it’s martial arts stuff, so you have to deal, because half the class loses their sparring turns every day, and the only people who win all the time are like Lancer and Tennyo. Even if Swordmaiden was real grumpy today about Phase.”
“Ooh! You didn’t tell this part!”
Anna said, “Well, when Swordmaiden was sparring against Phase today, she was using some real swords and some of ‘em must’ve been really expensive, because…”
Anna sat there at lunch, just knowing this was gonna be it. Phase was gonna kick her out of the Saturday party, right in front of the whole school, right here in Dunn Hall. Molly and Chou were walking right over toward her. And Molly was really nice, but Anna figured she’d do what her best friend wanted her to do, and Chou was Phase’s roommate, and everyone knew she was a really tough fighter, so Anna figured someone like Phase would do like Solange and get her roommate or her clique to do her dirty work.
Anna just gritted her teeth and concentrated on her dessert. But the cake tasted like ashes in her mouth. Or what she figured ashes probably tasted like if you were ever dumb enough to put ashes in your mouth. But that was what food was supposed to taste like when bad stuff like this was happening to you. Anyway, her cake tasted like her tastebuds weren’t working anymore.
She was not gonna cry. No matter how mean they were, she was not gonna cry. Not in front of the whole school. She’d go back to her room and cry. And it would be a long time before she talked to Molly again, even if Molly had been real nice to her so far, and Molly even seemed like the kind of person who ought to be in the Underdogs with her and Winnie.
She sat there and made herself chew the stupid not-tasting-good cake and she made herself ignore the people walking right toward her.
Molly smiled, “Hey, Anna.”
Anna couldn’t seem to make her throat work, so she just smiled at them. Chou looked at her and made a weird face, which wasn’t exactly a frown but looked sort of, well, frown-ish.
Molly said, “Have you talked to Caitlin about teaching me parkour?”
Huh? Anna blinked in surprise. That wasn’t what she was supposed to say! Anna managed to say, “Umm, well, I thought you were gonna talk to Caitlin.”
Molly looked over to the left and said, “Hey Winnie, if we get someone to teach me some parkour, do you want to learn too?”
Winnie said, “P-parkour? B-but they run up the s-sides of the b-buildings and l-like th-that! I c-can’t do th-that!”
Anna said, “That’s not normal parkour. That’s Whateley stuff. Just normal parkour stuff, like the basic jumps and rolls and things. Stuff anybody can do.”
“W-well n-not m-me,” Winnie said as she stared into her food.
Anna said, “Stuff anybody can do. You can do it too. If some of the dorky guys I’ve seen doing it can do it, you can do it easy. If you want to learn it, and you want to practice it. And there are baselines who really work at it, and they’re amazing.”
Chou said, “Perhaps it is Aquerna who should be doing the teaching, and not Eldritch. Caitlin is likely to have more of a Marine drill instructor teaching style. I do not think that is what we want.”
Winnie said, “A-and I t-trust Anna.”
Anna said, “But I can’t do that. I’m nobody! And Caitlin is really, really good!”
Chou just said, “And she taught you all the basics, is that not correct?” Anna nodded. “And you are good at them now. Right?” Anna sort of shrugged.
Chou gave her a sneaky smile. “I have seen you running across campus with the other ‘Hooligans’. If you are capable of keeping up with high-level Exemplars and highly-trained parkour experts, then I think we can take it for granted that you are more than just good with the basics.”
Anna blushed into her dessert.
Chou said to Molly and Winnie, “I will talk to Caitlin about Anna doing some teaching for us. And maybe Dorjee and I can pick up some tips along the way.”
Anna gulped. “But what about a place to do it? And pads? And stuff like that? You can’t just start out on concrete and stairs and things. You’d get hurt!” She didn’t like the way Molly sort of winced and checked her ribs a little. It was only about a week ago Molly hurt herself, and Lindsay had fussed around her for days afterward. Which was really nice, because Lindsay didn’t have to. But people liked Molly, and people knew Molly was Bladedancer’s friend, so nobody wanted to piss off someone who could’ve killed Bombshell, and so no one had ‘accidentally’ bumped Molly in the ribs or stuff. And Anna knew Molly had some nasty looking bruises still. You couldn’t get through the dorm showers without seeing what other people looked like naked when they got in and out of the showers, especially if they were doing it kind of slow because their side hurt.
Chou calmly said, “We can find a place that has enough padding and training equipment. Where did you train?”
Anna blushed again. “Umm, well, Mister Mahren just kind of took me out around campus and showed me some stuff and let me try it. And Thrasher and Zenith and Breaker showed me some other stuff.”
Ree asked, “If you set something up, can I come too? I need to start working out anyway, and this sounds more fun than doing jazzercise in front of thirty Exemplars dressed like Pilates Barbie.”
Molly smiled, “That’d be great. We just have to find a place where we can do this, and find a time we can all make it.”
Chou smiled mysteriously, which really made her look like one of those martial arts honchos from bad kung-fu movies. “I believe I know someone who can find a place for the practice.”
Molly rolled her eyes, but she smiled too. “Is there anything Ayla can’t do? Spin straw into gold?”
Chou smirked, “Oh, she can do that, but she just doesn’t want to stress the international financial markets.”
Molly laughed. She said, “Okay, we’ll talk to Caitlin and get back to you.” They strolled off, Chou whispering something to Molly that made Molly giggle out loud. It sounded to Anna like it was a joke about Phase and the ‘international straw standard’.
Nate waited until they were nearly out the door and then whispered across the table, “Phase can’t really spin straw into gold, can she?”
Trish gave him a smack on the back of the head. “Of course not! They were joking!”
Nate rubbed his head and said, “Well, this is Whateley. And she is a finance guru. I just thought I’d check.”
Alan said, “You know, there are weirder powers around here than that.”
Gary said, “Yeah. Like someone who sweats mithril. Or someone who controls nanites with her mind.”
Ree said, “Or someone who has the spirit of the squirrel.”
Anna stuck her tongue out at Ree.
Mindy said, “Let’s see. Just in the freshman class, we also got a girl who looks like Ryoko, a kid who sweats motor oil, a boy whose power is looking through girls’ clothing… Yeah, I could believe we have a kid who can change straw into gold.”
Alan said, “Not that Nate doesn’t need to be smacked in the back of the head regularly.”
“Hey!” said Nate.
Gary said, “Actually, I think that’s his problem. Too many whacks to the head.”
“Probably dropped on his head as an infant,” said Trish.
Anna managed not to laugh out loud as she ate her cake, which tasted a whole lot better than it did a few minutes ago.
So if Molly and Chou weren’t going to be the ones who came over to tell her not to show up Saturday morning, who was it going to be?
Anna spent the afternoon working on her talk for Civics class. She wanted to get it ready and go ahead and give it and be all done with it. She knew Ellen would want to wait until the very last day that she could before she finally gave in and had to do it. Ellen was just like that. The big problem was Anna had maybe enough material for a twenty minute talk on all the Presidents from Ohio, and she only had like five minutes for the talk. So she spent most of the afternoon throwing stuff out and trying to cut it down to a really good five minutes of stuff. Ellen said she really needed to show Mrs. Devon all the research stuff she had, so Mrs. Devon would know how hard Anna was working.
Then sensei Beaumont had something fun for people to try during warm-ups. She wanted people to try doing their pushups only with handstands. Okay, it was for the super-strong Exemplars mainly, but anybody who wanted to try it could join in. So Anna and a few others tried.
Anna carefully balanced on her hands and did a handstand. That part was pretty easy. It was way easier than running full speed across a roof and jumping into a handstand and then leaping from there to somewhere else. So this part wasn’t hard. Then she lowered herself until her nose just barely touched the mat. Then she pushed herself all the way back up into a handstand again. Well, that was a lot harder than regular pushups, but it wasn’t impossible for her. Okay, she was stronger than any normal fourteen year old girl, and she had way better balance, and she was a little lighter than you’d think from looking at her. Some of the other students who tried it, like Gavotte, managed to do the handstand, but didn’t have the arm strength to do the pushups. And some of the ones who tried kind of fell over on their backs and couldn’t get to a handstand. Anna felt bad for Packrat, who fell on her head twice before she gave up. Anna just wished she could go over and help.
The really amazing thing about it was Tennyo. Tennyo was doing her handstand pushups like it was super easy. But that wasn’t the amazing part. Tennyo’s hair – that long cyan colored hair that fell most of the way down her back – didn’t fall over when she did her handstands! It stayed flowing down over her shoulders and down her back even when she was upside down! It was like she was really right-side up, and you were looking at a mirror that just made it look like she was upside down.
And then the leg lifts were different. If you wanted to try them. Sensei Beaumont had the Exemplars and the other bricks doing leg lifts with big weights on their legs. A couple of the Exemplars had weights on their legs that looked like you couldn’t lift ‘em without a crane. Anna was one of the other kids who tried it, but with way lighter weights.
She got partnered with Shadowolf, who didn’t complain about having to work with her or anything, even if he didn’t smile back when she smiled and said she thought this was really cool to try out. But Shadowolf didn’t smile much at all in class, so maybe that was normal. She didn’t get it. Sometimes there were things in class that were so amazing how could you not smile or go ‘oooh’ or something?
So anyways, she and Shadowolf lay down on the mat pointing away from each other with their heads only inches apart, and they reached over their heads and hung onto each other’s arms so they wouldn’t get lifted up, and then they did leg lifts with weights on their legs. Anna had about twenty pounds of sandbags on her ankles, but Shadowolf had over a hundred pounds. And sensei Beaumont was walking around the room and on some of the kids she was standing on their ankles. On a couple of the kids, she stood on their ankles while she was holding a great big ol’ barbell! Okay, if you stood on Lancer’s ankles he’d hardly notice. You’d have to like park a couple trucks on his ankles to make a difference. But for a lot of the class, an extra hundred thirty pounds of sensei was a lot.
And then they did the same for sit-ups. Anna hooked her feet under a metal railing at the side of the gym, and sensei gave her a thirty pound sandbag to hold behind her head, and she did her sit-ups like that. It was really hard. For a lot of the class, that was peanuts. But it was a ton for her. Her stomach muscles were hurting before she was finished.
After all that, the senseis had them working against people who used different kinds of weapons. First, sensei Tolman had her and Shadowolf and Gavotte working against Appaloosa, who had a bokken. That was sort of fun, since Appaloosa was a really fast runner but not a super-speedster puncher. Or sword wielder. So Anna could almost keep up when Appaloosa did his chops with his bokken, and she had two kamas, so she could block twice as many hacks and stabs. She just couldn’t jump back out of the way, because then Appaloosa could use his running speed and zip over to where she was landing, and catch her.
After that, sensei Ito had Chaka come over with that meteor hammer. That was super-cool, but really scary too. Chaka was so good with that thing! And it went really fast! Chaka took it easy on Gavotte and Packrat, but still wrapped ‘em up in the chains pretty easily. At least she didn’t bonk ‘em with those huge balls on the ends of the chain. Then Chaka went at her. Sensei Ito explained to Anna that she had a couple things she could try, so Anna tried ‘em all. She tried dropping flat or jumping up into the air when the meteor came sailing her way, so she dropped under the chain or jumped completely over it, and that worked a couple times. Anna even heard Chaka singing an old jumprope song under her breath, which almost made Anna laugh out loud. But then Chaka suckered her into jumping straight up to leap over the chain, and then Chaka slung the rest of the chain that was in her hands up in the air and snagged her around the ankles. Anna dropped to the mat and Chaka had her before Anna could get out of the chains. After that, Anna tried jumping back out of the way some of the time, and straight up some of the time, and dropping flat some of the time. That worked better, but Chaka still got her after a bit. And Anna worked at snagging the chain of the meteor hammer with her kamas, and that didn’t work so great. In three tries, she got the chains once, she got all wrapped up once, and she nearly got bonked on the head with the big steel ball once. But sensei Ito just said that practice would improve things.
And then she and Gavotte and Packrat worked against another of the students with bokken. But Aztecka wasn’t as nice about it as Appaloosa, and Az kind of knocked all of them all over the mat.
But the best part was after that, when she got to work against Phase and that super-strong tactical baton of hers. That was really great. And Phase smiled and let her go first and everything. Not that it did any good. Anna worked at getting in an attack and then leaping backward out of Phase’s reach. Not that it would really do her any good in a real fight, when everybody said Phase had all kinds of holdouts and stuff, and could probably pull out a raygun and blast her if she wanted to. And one time, Anna jumped back so far she nearly landed on Redlight’s feet, which would’ve been bad, even if Redlight seemed like a really nice guy.
But Phase did this thing where she held her baton all collapsed and behind her back so Anna had no idea what Phase was going to do, and then she’d snap it out and swing it. Only when Anna tried to block it with her kamas it was like blocking a falling tree. So Anna had to just avoid the baton all the time. Which wasn’t easy. Phase was too good for her, even if Anna could tell Phase was taking it easy on her and trying to be nice. And Phase even stopped a couple times and gave her like really good advice too!
And then, after they finished, sensei Tolman took Anna’s group over to their area and talked to them about what had worked for them and what hadn’t. Well, it sounded like most everything had worked for Lancer. Big surprise there. It sounded like he’d done some kind of sparring with Tennyo and had to pretend her bokken was that wicked lightsaber she could make that cut through everything, so he’d mostly worked with defensive katas and avoiding her bokken. Tennyo could fly faster than Lancer, and had that lightsaber and that amazing regen, but Lancer was stronger and a little quicker than her. And Gavotte had worked on brush blocks with her sais to handle attacks from stronger kids, and that had gone pretty good from what she said. Shadowolf had a decent amount of success using his shadow powers to blind his opponents or screen himself, but that hadn’t worked against Generator or Redlight any better than it did against Anna the other day. Well, Anna knew Redlight was a PDP – heck, everybody knew that – and so Redlight was probably using his Psi power whenever Shadowolf tried those shadow techniques on him. And Generator had some pretty cool devises, including that thing like a holographic eyepiece over one eye, so she could probably use that to see through Shadowolf’s stuff. Anna was really happy that sensei Tolman even stopped and talked with her about how her practices went.
Once they wrapped up that part of the lesson, it was time for sparring. The best was Chaka against Phase. That was so awesome to watch! Chaka was always awesome, and with a meteor hammer she just looked too cool, and now Anna knew just how tough it was to fight against someone with a meteor hammer if they were any good at it. But Phase was just like all calm and relaxed, and she ate Chaka’s meteor hammer with her powers! And then Chaka blasted Phase out of the sparring circle like something out of Dragonball Z! And then Chaka got behind Phase with a chain around Phase’s neck and Phase stabbed Chaka with that super-hard baton! It was the most awesome sparring of the whole day.
It was way more awesome than when she sparred against Gavotte. Anna was careful not to hurt Gavotte, who looked really pretty when she was dancing across the floor, but it wasn’t like Gavotte was super-strong or super-tough. So Anna won the match, even though Gavotte got in a couple strikes along the way with those sais.
After class in the locker room, Anna was figuring on Blitz or Alakazam being mean to Chaka about losing to Phase, since they didn’t seem to like her. But it was Tennyo and Generator who were teasing her about it, and they were really funny.
Tennyo grinned, “Hey, you’re just lucky Phase didn’t crank it up and let you have it with the stuff in her utility belt.”
Without thinking, Anna said, “Ooh! I saw her do that against Lancer! It was awesome!” Then she winced a little, but no one told her to shut up or anything, so she guessed it was okay for her to say stuff to Tennyo and Chaka.
Chaka just said, “Yeah, I got the down-low on that one.” And when Chaka said ‘down low’ she even did this hand gesture with both hands like she was totally hip and ghetto-like, and it made Generator giggle. “If she spars against Lancer tomorrow, she’ll probably pull a couple weapons outta her Batman Belt.”
Aztecka asked, “Do you really think she has anything that would stop Lancer?”
Chaka said, “Oh yeah, homegirl. She fought Lancer to a standstill for a couple minutes last term, and she’s upped her weaponry a couple times since then.”
Anna wouldn’t have dared call Aztecka ‘homegirl’ in a billion years. Chaka was just so cool. And brave.
Tennyo said, “She can buy anything she wants to, so she probably has something wicked from the Gizmatic catalog or something.”
And Generator said, “Syn d’Rome has an awesome website. I bet Phase has some stuff from there!”
But Tennyo frowned at her and snapped, “You’re not supposed to be going to their website anymore!”
Generator just said, “Oops.” And she gave Tennyo this naughty look like Mindy Creasey’s little sister did back home, kind of a ‘I’m too cute for you to make me stick to the rules’ look that Mindy’s little sister did all the time.
But Anna knew from Molly that Tennyo and Generator roomed together, and she’d seen they were really good friends, so she figured Tennyo was just looking out for Generator. And, since Generator did crazy stuff sometimes, Tennyo probably had to look out for her a lot. On the other hand, Generator had fought Electrode in the combat finals, and done really well with all her devises. And Generator had totally kicked butt when Team Kimba had faced the Young Turks in that arena match. So maybe Generator didn’t need a whole lot of looking out for. Except keeping her from doing crazy stuff.
At dinner that night, Anna was still wondering if Phase was going to send someone over to tell her not to show up Saturday morning, but Phase had been so nice and friendly in martial arts class that Anna was kind of figuring Phase wouldn’t, even if by now Phase had to be thinking it over and wondering if maybe there were a few people on her list who could be dropped. Like the weird girl with the spirit of the squirrel.
And when Anna told Ree and Luce and the rest who she’d practiced against that day, Ree just looked at her all impressed, and Luce gave her that worried ‘mom’ look, and Nate looked at her like she was crazy. Well, Nate almost always looked at her like she was crazy when she talked about her martial arts class. So she was totally not surprised about that.
“But didn’t you get all busted up? I mean doing that stuff with Chaka and Phase?”
Anna smiled a little. “No. They’re both real careful. I mean, Chaka with a meteor hammer? Like… umm… like the world’s greatest violinist with a violin. I was practicing this thing where I tried to snag her chain with my kamas to stop her, and one of the times I totally messed up, and I only got part of the chain, and I was totally sure I was gonna get whacked hard with that big metal ball on the end, and Chaka just did this weird thing with her head, and there was this kind of zing down the chain, and the ball just veered away from me like she smacked it with a hammer. And Phase could’ve hurt me real bad if she wanted to, but she was really nice.”
Alan smirked, “Well duh, she likes you. Remember? Invite to the birthday party of the year?”
Anna ducked her head and blushed some. “I don’t know. But one time I did my attack and she just blocked it like my kamas were made outta cardboard, and I looked down, and she had her baton in my stomach.”
“She rammed you in the stomach?”
Anna said, “No, she made it go immaterial, and she stuck it through me. So all she had to do to hurt me real bad was let it go back to normal. Or make it super-heavy instead of super-light, and ram me in the guts with it. Because some of the time when she was swinging it around and I blocked it, it felt like she was making it go super-heavy so it felt like I was trying to block a falling tree. It’s no wonder she could spar with Lancer last term like she did.”
Alan muttered, “Just a good thing the crazies like her are crazy about something besides ripping everyone’s head off. Man, if Lancer and Phase were like Bloodwolf…”
Trish finished his thought. “Yeah, there’d be bits and pieces of people all over campus.”
Gary said, “And what they didn’t finish, their buddies Tennyo and Fey would smush.” He stopped and said, “But if you ask me, Generator’s the really loony one in their group.”
“Loonier than Olympia?”
Mindy said, “Okay, there probably isn’t anyone loonier than Olympia. That girl is a fruitcake and a half. I mean, she makes Mega-Death and Bloodwolf look like candidates for the Supreme Court. I heard the Greek government has a deal with Whateley so they don’t let her go home for holidays, because she’s just that dangerous.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sure,” said Nate in a ‘no way’ voice. “Even Bloodwolf and Razorback got to go home for Christmas. I totally don’t believe that.”
Mindy pouted, “Well, it’s what I heard.”
Friday went better for Anna. She wasn’t as worried about getting told not to come to the Saturday party. She got to take a nice, long shower with nobody else in the bathroom. And Ellen even left an almond Danish from breakfast on Anna’s desk, so Anna had a yummy late breakfast before Civics class.
And then Anna showed Mrs. Devon all the stuff she’d been working on for her talk, and Mrs. Devon was really happy with it. She pulled out her calendar for timeslots for talks, and she let Anna go ahead and pick one of the early spots so she could be done with it. Anna looked at Mrs. Devon’s calendar thing and saw that two other students were already down for giving their talks at the start of the next to last week of class, so Anna picked the first spot Mrs. Devon had for the next class period, which was a Wednesday, so that the really good students who would go first wouldn’t make her look totally lame. And in class Mrs. Devon had something real interesting about the history of the Supreme Court, and then Anna knew the answers for the three questions Mrs. Devon asked the class, and put her hand up every time, and even got to answer one of them, and Mrs. Devon said she was exactly right. Anna knew the jerks at the back of the room didn’t know the answers, because she could hear them whispering back and forth trying to get each other to tell them what the right answers were. She didn’t say anything to Mrs. Devon, especially since all the answers she heard those three creeps tell each other were really, really wrong.
Escape class was really fun too. They did more stuff with the MCO cuffs, which were super hard to pick, on top of being super-strong. And then Mr. Robertson had these ‘hospital cuffs’ that were padded cuffs with heavy leather straps to snug ‘em tight, and the cuffs were one-way. You slid the leather straps in and pulled ‘em tight, and they stayed that way. The only way to get them to unstrap was to slide this weird-shaped key of flat metal into the little flat keyhole and then pull the strap out. So after Mr. Robertson showed everyone how to pick that kind of lock with a paperclip or a flat piece of steel cut to the right shape, then he got four guys from the class to come down front, and he cuffed ‘em together, one cuff on each of them, and he let ‘em try to get loose. And since Mr. Robertson put the cuffs on two guys’ ankles and the other two guys’ wrists, and the cables from cuff to cuff were pretty short, the guys were kind of falling all over each other and falling onto the floor while they tried really hard to get loose.
Then Mr. Robertson gave the girls in the class a chance. He called Ree and Anna and two girls Anna didn’t know: Chat Bleu and Conjure. Anna only knew Chat Bleu’s codename was ‘Chat Bleu’ because early in the class when Mr. Robertson called on her, one of the three jerks at the back of the room asked her why her codename was ‘Shot Blew’ and made a really filthy joke about oral sex that got him a detention because Mr. Robertson heard him. But that was how Anna knew that Chat Bleu really meant ‘blue cat’ in French. Even if Anna totally did not get how c-h-a-t was supposed to be pronounced ‘shah’. And Chat Bleu was kind of snotty about how Americans didn’t know how to pronounce or speak French, which Anna thought was kind of rude.
And so Mr. Robertson did the same sort of thing he did to the guys. He strapped a cuff to Ree’s right hand, then the next cuff on the cable to Anna’s left ankle, then the next cuff on the line to Conjure’s left wrist, then the last cuff to Chat Bleu’s right ankle.
Chat Bleu said in her accent that all the guys thought was really sexy, “Wait un moment.” Even Anna knew that meant ‘a moment’. Chat Bleu slowly lifted her right leg up until her knee was up by her shoulder and her ankle was at wrist level. Some jerky guy in the class did a wolf whistle, which Chat Bleu ignored. Mr. Robertson gave the guy a really nasty glare.
Anna looked at Chat Bleu and got it. If all of them had their cuffs at the same level, they’d have a lot more room to work and they wouldn’t be pulling each other over. She said, “Oh. I can do that.” She pulled her leg up like that and balanced on one leg, which was pretty easy, as long as no one pulled hard on their wrist cuff.
And then Chat Bleu had her cuff picked first, several seconds before Anna got hers picked, and the two of them helped Conjure and Ree pick their cuffs open.
Mr. Robertson gave them a smirk for doing better than the guys. He said, Nice work. Any comments, ladies?”
Chat Bleu looked at the guy who whistled at her and said, “As the Americans like to say: girls rule, boys drool.”
Anna and Ree giggled all the way back to their seats. Anna would’ve liked to get to know Chat Bleu, but she had this ‘go away’ attitude, and her squirrel spirit didn’t like her for some reason Anna didn’t get unless it was the whole ‘chat means cat’ thing. If she really was French, Anna wondered if Charmer knew her. It seemed like a lot of the Europeans hung out together a lot of the time.
Then martial arts was great. Sensei Beaumont had some more fun ways to do warm-ups, along with the cool stuff from yesterday. Anna really liked the tag-team stretches where they partnered with someone else. She got partnered with Gavotte, which worked real well, since they were both really stretchy, even if Gavotte could do a full split like a ballerina which Anna couldn’t manage. And sensei Beaumont had some isometric warm-ups where you did these moves where you pushed against your own muscles, so it didn’t matter how strong you were because you were working against your own body. That was pretty awesome, even if Aztecka accidentally ripped one seam of the mat apart as she stretched her legs further out.
Then there was more cool stuff with working on countering other people’s moves when they had other weapons. Since Chaka knew the most cool stuff with the most weapons, sensei Ito had her going all over the mat working with different people, with Chaka showing them the kamas and the sais and the fighting claws and a thing Anna didn’t even know what it was called that was like a giant claw hammer mounted on a long pole, and throwing knives, and you-name-it.
Since Anna was the only other person besides Chaka who was working with the kamas, she got sent around to a few people too. But that meant she got to work with some people she hadn’t done anything with yet, or that she hardly ever got to work with. Most of them were in the bokken group that sensei Beaumont ran.
Then sparring was its usual awesomeness. Chaka totally owned Sahar, even if Sahar was an Exemplar and psychic and everyone said she was really, really dangerous. They started off dodging everything the other one did for about ten or fifteen seconds, and then suddenly Chaka did something and after that Sahar couldn’t dodge anything Chaka did, so the match ended up being shorter than Anna expected. But Sahar wasn’t mad about it. If Anna had heard right and Chaka was teaching Sahar Ki stuff like a regular sensei, then Sahar was probably used to Chaka clobbering her like that.
Anna was totally not ready when sensei Ito called her up to fight Força. Força had two knives, and he did that fancy cartwheel-dance thing that was called carpy-eerie or something like that. Anna had her kamas. But Força was an Exemplar too, and stronger than her, plus he was an Energizer and did those blasts out of his hands. There was no way Anna could win.