I wouldn’t have volunteered to train the initiates if not for the smell of the training room— the scent of dust and sweat and sharpened metal. This was the first place I ever felt strong. Every time I breathe this air I feel it again.
At one end of the room is a slab of wood with a target painted on it. Against one wall is a table covered with throwing knives—ugly metal instruments with a hole at one end, perfect for inexperienced initiates. Lined up across from me are the faction transfers, who still bear, in one way or another, the marks of their old factions: the straight-backed Candor, the steady-eyed Erudite, and the Stiff, leaning into her toes so she’s ready to move.
“Tomorrow will be the last day of stage one,” Eric says.
He doesn’t look at me. I hurt his pride yesterday, and not just during capture the flag—Max pulled me aside at breakfast to ask how the initiates were doing, as if Eric was not the one in charge. Eric was sitting at the table next to mine at the time, scowling into his bran muffin.
“You will resume fighting then,” Eric continues. “Today, you’ll be learning how to aim. Everyone pick up three knives, and pay attention while Four demonstrates the correct technique for throwing them.” His eyes fall somewhere north of mine, like he is standing above me. I straighten up. I hate when he treats me like his lackey, like I didn’t knock out one of his teeth during our own initiation.
They scramble for knives like factionless kids over a spare piece of bread, too desperate. All except her, with her deliberate movements, her blond head slipping between the shoulders of taller initiates. She doesn’t try to look comfortable with the blades balancing on her palms, and that is what I like about her, that she knows these weapons are unnatural yet she finds a way to wield them.
Eric walks toward me, and I back away by instinct. I try not to be afraid of him, but I know how smart he is and that if I’m not careful he’ll notice that I keep staring at her, and that will be my undoing. I turn toward the target, a knife in my right hand.
I requested that the knife-throwing be taken from the training curriculum this year, because it serves no actual purpose other than fueling the Dauntless bravado. No one here will ever use it except to impress someone, the way I will impress them now. Eric would say that dazzling people can be useful, which is why he denied my request, but it’s everything I hate about Dauntless.
I hold the knife by its blade so the balance is right. My initiation instructor, Amar, saw that I had a busy mind, so he taught me to tie my movements to my breaths. I inhale, and stare at the target’s center. I exhale, and throw. The knife hits the target. I hear a few of the initiates draw breath at the same time. I find a rhythm in it: inhale and pass the next knife to my right hand, exhale and turn it with my fingertips, inhale and watch the target, exhale and throw. Everything goes dark around the center of that board. The other factions call us brutish, as if we don’t use our minds, but that is all I do here.
Eric’s voice breaks my daze. “Line up!”
I leave the knives in the board to remind the initiates of what is possible, and stand against the side wall. Amar was also the one who gave me my name, back in the days when the first thing initiates did upon arriving in the Dauntless compound was go through our fear landscapes. He was the sort of person who made a nickname stick, so likable that everyone imitated him.
He’s dead now, but sometimes, in this room, I can still hear him scolding me for holding my breath.
She doesn’t hold her breath. That’s good—one less bad habit to break. But she has a clumsy arm, awkward as a chicken leg.
Knives are flying but, most of the time, not spinning. Even Edward hasn’t figured it out, though he’s usually the quickest, his eyes alive with that Erudite knowledge-craving.
“I think the Stiff’s taken too many hits to the head!” Peter says. “Hey, Stiff! Remember what a knife is?”
I don’t usually hate people, but I hate Peter. I hate that he tries to shrink people, the same way Eric does.
Tris doesn’t answer, just picks up a knife and throws, still with that awkward arm, but it works—I hear metal slam against board, and I smile.
“Hey, Peter,” Tris says. “Remember what a target is?”
I watch each of them, trying not to catch Eric’s eye as he paces like a caged animal behind them. I have to admit that Christina is good—though I don’t like giving credit to Candor smart- mouths—and so is Peter—though I don’t like giving credit to future psychopaths. Al, however, is just a walking, talking sledgehammer, all power and no finesse.
It’s a shame Eric also notices.
“How slow are you, Candor? Do you need glasses? Should I move the target closer to you?” he says, his voice strained.
Al the Sledgehammer has unexpectedly soft insides. The taunting pierces them. When he throws again, the knife sails into a wall. “What was that, initiate?” Eric says.
“Well, I think you should go get it.”
The initiates stop throwing.
“Did I tell you to stop?” Eric says, his pierced eyebrows raised.
This is not good.
“Go get it?” says Al. “But everyone’s still throwing.”
“And I don’t want to get hit.”
“I think you can trust your fellow initiates to aim better than you. Go get your knife.”
The Sledgehammer strikes again, I think. The response is stubborn but there is no strategy in it. Still, it takes more bravery for Al to say no than for Eric to force him to get a knife to the back of the head, which is something Eric will never understand.
“Why not? Are you afraid?”
“Of getting stabbed by an airborne knife?” says Al. “Yes, I am!”
My body gets heavy as Eric raises his voice. “Everyone stop!”
The first time I met Eric he wore blue and his hair was parted down the side. He was trembling as he approached Amar to receive the injection of fear-landscape serum into his neck. During his fear landscape, he never moved an inch; he just stood still, screaming into clenched teeth, and somehow maneuvered his heartbeat down to an acceptable level using his breath. I didn’t know it was possible to conquer fear in your body before you did it in your mind. That was when I knew I should be wary of him.