Before the jagged mouth of a deep canyon, twelve children in beige desert garb scurried to line up in two rows of six. Towering and narrow, the passage that snaked ahead was far darker than it should have been in the rising light of the dawn, but not a single child betrayed even the slightest shade of fear. Instead, they looked straight ahead with wide, alert eyes, some even eager.
A bald man in hardened leather armor paced before them, staring hard at each small head he passed. “Let’s get this out of the way: yes, you might die. We’ll send notice to your family with your remains for a burial. You might have been hand-picked to come here, but you’re nothing special yet. Not until you pass through the Gauntlet. And no one feels sorry for you just because you’re still knee-high and knock-kneed. Is that understood!”
Twelve childish voices chimed in uniform assent. The man grimaced. He swore these kids got smaller every year. “None of you are going to make it through the Gauntlet on the first try, so don’t get any stupid ideas if you want to live to try again tomorrow. Only been done once before, and none of you have the right look in your eyes. You won’t get far. But that’s why you’re here, so you can harden and grow and stop being useless little brats. You might think you’re special for getting farther than the rest, but you’re only on the brink, nothing but fodder until you prove yourself. Understand?”
“Then…” The man moved off to the side with one final stride, letting his heavy boot fall onto the loose, sandy dirt with a thump. “Go!”
The children took off with a scramble toward the gorge’s entrance, the rustle of their clothes accompanying their frantic footsteps as they entered the darkened passage. They left behind the commanding officer, who stared after them with a stern expression.
“Bit cruel, isn’t it? I think a few would make it here and there if you didn’t batter their confidence like that before they even start.”
He didn’t even turn to look at his adjutant, a slender young man with blond hair, blue eyes, and dashingly high cheekbones. “Be quiet.”
“Alright, sir. You’ve got it, sir, no lip from me. Then…want to join the pool we’ve set up? I’ve put money on the girl with the long black hair. She’s got feral eyes, maybe more used to desert terrain than most of the recruits. We’re thinking she’ll make it a third of the way.”
“But Captain Sanson…”
“I will strip you down to your smallclothes if you don’t stop badgering me, you dolled-up palace reject.”
Louten pouted. “I knew I shouldn’t have taken this post. All of you are too coarse, and this place is nothing but dust and rude words.”
“Maybe stop chasing the wrong skirts, then. Being banished out to the desert garrison in the sands here will teach you to slide in under the wrong covers, won’t it?” Captain Sanson shook his head. Burdened with an unhardened pretty boy out here in the desert fringes…Louten wouldn’t last long, not with the growing rumors of rebel uprisings every year and the sharp, dry sands encroaching on fertile territory more with each season like an unstoppable disease. Not to mention all the dangerous beasts starting to slither out of the desert on top of everything else, too. Louten could barely hold his clothes together without an attendant to help him pull back his perfectly groomed hair; what was he going to do if they were ever raided? Couldn’t even stay out of Sanson’s hair today while he handled the first day of Gauntlet training. Absolute pest.
He peered down the gorge and waited for the first shouts to ring through the eerily dark canyon. Didn’t have much hope for this year’s batch of the most promising the Imperial City had to offer, because those children weren’t the only ones being tested today. If anything, they were only the bait. Playthings.
Someone was coming. They would find out who.
* * *
Boots stomped along the sands as the children rushed along the bottom of the gorge. The craggy rock walls on either side towered higher and higher, and the meager light shining through the divide failed to illuminate the shadowed passage. Tall, stalagmite-shaped stacks of weathered rock stood guard at irregular intervals along the way, some skinny and barely an imposition while others were nearly three meters wide at the base, forcing the runners to clamber around the gigantic monoliths.
Soon, the natural corridor narrowed even more. Two meters wide, and then just one, until the children were sliding forward one by one down the descending slope like droplets of water funneling downward. And the deeper they went, the darker it became, until finally the jagged tops of the gorge converged and blocked nearly all the light, leaving only scant, scattered reflections of daylight to glimmer against the rocks and sands.
The children slowed down. They glanced between themselves and counted their numbers, only to find they had all made it so far. This couldn’t be it, their eyes said. Yes, the terrain had been hellish, but they had come almost a full kilometer and there was nothing but dirt and dust. They had expected at least one dangerous beast or two, maybe, something that would truly put them in danger so they could prove their mettle.
And then they felt it. The rumble of loose earth under their feet, faint at first but growing stronger by the second. Two of them, a girl with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and pitch black eyes as well as a boy with much the same looks, wasted no time in scrambling to climb onto the closest ledges they could find, fingers digging into the crumbling walls and digging for handholds. The other children learned quickly. As soon as they saw the two desert natives leap for safety, they followed suit with all promptness - except for the last pair, too slow by a hair’s breadth.
Something burst out of the ground, spraying gritty sand in all directions, and the first screams rang out as the serpent-like creature bashed into the wall and knocked down the two stragglers who had only made it several meters up. They lost their holds and tumbled to the ground in a heap, one curling into the fetal position immediately with a rattling groan. The other was luckier and managed to land on their rear, but he was in no position revel in any relief. With a fearful gasp, he scrambled onto his hands and knees and tried to run for the wall again, but the gigantic wyrm reared up, up, up -
- and roared as it struggled to throw off something that leaped from behind onto its frilled head and neck. Dark green scales glittered and clinked together as the wyrm writhed, even hurling itself into the wall with ferocious strength and injuring itself. A spatter of silvery blood flew from the creature’s gaping, fanged maw and landed on several other children who had yet to make it high enough to reach safety. The serpent was easily seven meters long and as thick around as three trees, and when it reared up, its shadow swallowed them all. They wouldn’t make it. They wouldn’t make it-
A shout went up when one of them finally identified the shape attached to the wyrm’s head. A person! Someone in dark leather armor and white attire underneath, someone who had just lodged their spear straight across the rear of the creature’s maw behind its fangs. The beast wailed again and attempted to close its jaw as it thrashed and screamed, but the wooden shaft of the weapon held strong. Whoever it was wrangling the wyrm was strong enough to cling to the head and neck with just their clamped knees. Who was that? The armor was generic foot soldier issue, and they had their head concealed in a white cloth wrap that barely revealed even the eyes. Who? And moreover, what had this person been doing in the canyon ahead of them?
But no time for questions or gratitude. Their rescuer’s timely appearance would have to go unthanked. They scrambled back down to the ground and fled, running past the writhing creature -
- and leaped back when the wyrm crashed across their path, barring the way forward.
“Grab rocks to throw with!” someone barked, and the recruits’ heads all whipped around to look at the young girl who had just shouted. She was already picking up the sharpest piece of rubble she could find that had fallen from the bashed wall, and she wound back her arm to hurl it toward the wyrm writhing in the sand. Her pitch-black eyes were hard and fierce, and the stray strands of dark hair that had freed itself from her ponytail were pasted to her forehead with sweat. “Don’t be idiots! That guy’s not on our side. He’s using the wyrm to get to us, too!”
They realized in an instant that it was true. With the spear still lodged horizontally across the open jaw, preventing it from closing, the wyrm was hardly a threat as long as they stayed away from its thrashing tail. But the person who had subdued the wyrm, the one who was now effectively riding it, even - he was staring at them as he jerked back on both ends of his weapon shaft, making the creature’s head rear back as well under his controlling grip. The wyrm hadn’t fallen in front of them. That soldier had steered it there. Dark eyes stared out at them through the slit in the white head cloth, and the girl shouted once more.
“A desert native! Don’t let down your guard. He can’t catch all of us!”
That was true, but what everyone else also knew was that not everyone would make it. Most might, if they were lucky enough to not be the bait. The others, the ones who went first…
“Oh, “Oh, look at that! I knew you were up to something when you didn’t meet us at the river choke point, you dirty cheater!”
Another voice rang out, a strong, masculine one that echoed around them. The wrangled wyrm renewed its struggles once more at the sudden appearance of an armored man strolling in from behind it, but the rider gave it another punishing jerk of its spear and forced it to settle.
The newcomer was a young man with a strong, cut jaw and a cleft chin. Sandy blond hair and dark blue eyes glimmered even in the murky half-darkness of the gorge, and the mixed metal and leather armor snugly framed a tall, muscular stature. He approached with slow steps, moving expertly around the wyrm’s twitching tail as he twirled a sword in one hand. The air of a trained, confident soldier, but the smile curving his mouth was playful rather than dangerous. He stared up at the creature’s bleeding head and grinned, ignoring the gaggle of staring children entirely. “The others shouldn’t be far behind, so sadly, you won’t be snatching your win this easily. But, hey. Nostalgia. I remember when I was a kid making my first Gauntlet Run here, like those kids. How’s it feel to be on the other side now after all these years? Being the chaser instead of the chased?”
He received no answer.
“Oh, come on. No need to be so serious.” He twirled his sword in his grip once more before positioning it in front of him with both hands on the haft. “Rookies don’t get to clear the Gauntlet on the first try, whether you’re here for the First Run like these kids or for the Second, like us. Save yourself some time and just come down. If we’re quick enough, I’ll split half the kids with you, and we can take the win together this time before the others get here.”
Still no answer. Some of the children surreptitiously began edging toward the wall, confused by whatever was happening but still desperate to escape. If those two adults were going to remain distracted, then perhaps this was their chance to -
“Ah, don’t move, you little runts.” The man hadn’t turned toward them, but it was clear who he was speaking to. They all froze, eyes glued to the glinting tip of his sword, and were reminded very clearly they had no weapons of their own. “All of you stay exactly where you are. Uncle Pierro will take good care of all of you - as soon as he gets this lady here to agree. What do you say? Are we going to team up, or are we going to settle this the hard -”
He leaped out of the way just in time to avoid being crushed by the wyrm’s diving head, which bashed through a natural rock pillar formation before slamming into the wall with a screech. Instead of withdrawing and trying again, the creature shuddered with an echoing wail before collapsing in a limp pile across the floor of the gorge. All was silent as ‘the lady’ dismounted from the head, one slender leg gracefully swinging over the thick neck and joining the other to stand upon the loosely packed sand. She bent over to slide her spear out from behind the wyrm’s fangs, belatedly freeing its maw. With an experimental heft, she steadied her grip on the weapon and stared back at the other soldier, who grinned even wider.
“I should have known better than to negotiate with you. Come on, then. Let’s get down to business, Anzi.”
This was unfortunate. Anzi had expected the wyrm because there had been one when she first ran the Gauntlet herself, but what she hadn’t expected was a nearly full-grown beast ready to devour whatever it managed to sink its teeth into. Was the quartermaster insane? These kids were too young, no way any of them could outpace a creature of this size. And the chances of surviving the attack? Laughably low. If she hadn’t sneaked down in the first place for other reasons entirely, she would never have been here to stop the beast in time. It had exploded out of the sand like a lightning strike and gone straight for the closest children hanging from the rock wall, and if she had been even a half-second slower in leaping on its head to throwing off its aim, at least one of the recruits would be maimed or dead. On her own First Run years ago, the wyrms in the canyon hadn’t been half so dangerous. Idiot quartermaster! She would report this to the colonel so he could g
Anzi remembered this place, every bend, every dip, every shadow. Or so she wanted to think, but that was impossible. This was part of the desert, which changed day by day. Nothing was ever the same, especially not after almost six years. She had come here when she was twelve just like those recruits. After two years of rigorous training and advancement through the ranks, she had been named one of the dozen most promising and put through her First Run. She had completed it on the first try. Was the only one who’d ever managed it. There it was, the memory of stumbling over and slapping her hands on the tower of circular stones that marked the finish point, bleeding and heaving with two broken ribs, a shattered nose, and both eyes so swollen she’d barely been able to see. How she had managed to fight off the senior soldiers chasing her and make it to the end, none of the officers knew, until the four Second Runners had come trotting out of the gorge with bruise
The instant Doufan tensed his legs, Anzi followed suit, but she was the first to leap. With spear in hand, she lunged with the tip pointed at his chest. He was too lithe and agile to be struck anywhere else. But he disappeared in a brown leather blur and she reeled back, imagining a blade slicing through her spine already. Disadvantage. Even magicked, a weakened spear wouldn’t hold long against his halberd, but she had no choice. He was forcing her hand, and Aimee was in the back still aiming rocks at her with alarmingly deadly aim. They were playing it safe, with her using her potshots to limit Anzi’s mobility while Doufan chipped away at her stamina with a rapid chain of strikes from his halberd. She leaped back to avoid a vicious downward stab that would have impaled her foot and trapped it to the ground, but in doing so, Aimee found yet another opening to send a rock flying toward her forehead. It thwacked her in the face and she staggered back, seeing d
“You look like shit.” Anzi Anzi Anzi raised her head to see Pierro standing in the hallway outside her open door. She hadn’t noticed his approach because of the irritating noise that this barracks building tolerated, the humming of constant conversation leaking through the cabin walls and even occasional shouting. In the Imperial City, noise beyond a whisper was never tolerated in sleeping quarters. If soldiers wanted to socialize and speak freely, they went to the recreational buildings. No discipline here at all. Desert garrisons really were disorganized. “You don’t look so good either,” she told the other soldier, making sure to look him up and down with a deliberate, pointed expression from where she sat on her low cot. “You could have left the trash talking behind when I knocked you out, by the way.” He sidled into the tiny room with his hands clasped behind his back, He sidled into the tiny room with hi
“Sir!” Anzi shoved herself off the cot and leaped to her feet to stand at attention, arms locked at her sides and back ramrod-straight in military fashion. She faced the doorway where the colonel stood in all his imposing, white-haired dignity. He was clothed in his formal, dark blue and white Service regalia as always - of course he would never strip himself of any of it, even in this sweltering heat. Colonel Alexandre Bisset, dragon rider, Premier Guard. His bristling white brow suggested advanced age, and yet his face was smooth and unlined. He looked not a day over forty, if that, and yet it was well known that the man had been a loyal member of the Service for over eighty years. This was the youth imbued by a deep bond with an immortal dragon, evidence of his unwavering devotion and prodigious skill. “Get dressed and prepare to leave,” he said, voice curt and raspy as he stared at her with his usual glow
The Imperial City, from whence every good thing flowed. This was the cradle of the nation that had unified every divided territory from the western edge of the Adaraat Desert all the way to the sea. This was the birthplace of all things just and fair, all things meant for greatness. And of course, the seat of the Emperor’s power could be nothing less than grand and breathtakingly beautiful. Far below, the colors of the sprawling city blended and rippled into each other like threads in a great tapestry, the red banners of the various districts twining all about with splendid, curated groves of exotic trees lining every roadway. Many generations before, this place once had another name, but the Emperor had decreed long ago that it would simply become the Imperial City. The Empire was therefore simply the Empire for that reason as well. Instead of attaching a name to it and making it only one of many, this reign was meant to be the one and only. Not an empire, but The Empire. And that wa
“Anzi, greet the Emperor’s guest.” Colonel Bisset’s voice grated in her ear as if he were speaking right into it, and the gravelly anger buried there managed to bring her out of her stunned reverie. Dark hells, what was she doing? Still disoriented, she nearly presented Kaizat with a military salute, only managing to catch herself in time because she saw Bisset’s twitch out of the corner of her eye. He was a foreign guest, a chieftain, not an officer. With a smooth flourish, she brought her hand down from where it had been raised halfway and stepped back so she could bend at the waist in a respectful bow. There was no doubt that the colonel had spotted her near-mistake. He was going to have something to say about that later. She grimaced before returning her face to a neutral expression and rising again. To her utter distaste, however, Kaizat bowed as well. Not at the waist, thankfully, but with his golden gaze fixed on her, he inclined his head as deeply as it could go without takin
Anzi had never been in the palace before, which meant she had no pass token to flash at whoever might stop and interrogate her. Would the guards at the front gates open them for her so she could leave? They weren’t supposed to, but with an important foreign chieftain at her side, maybe they would make an exception. Exiting the palace unauthorized had to be easier than getting in. But lesson learned: maybe she should have thought about that before rushing out of the throne room. “How long have you been a soldier?” She looked back at the man and resisted the urge to take a sidling step away from him as they walked down the hallway. She had pulled her hand out of his grasp long ago, but he was sticking too close for comfort. Surely he didn’t have to walk so close that their hands threatened to brush against each other with every step, and surely he didn’t have to stare at her that way, either. His unnatural golden gaze felt like it was boring straight through her and melting her down li