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 go and shred the desert garrison apart for their carelessness.
And worse, all the trouble she had gone to would be for nothing now. Pierro had caught up to her in the chaos, so even after she dispatched this wyrm, she would still have to deal with him. And no doubt everyone else was on their way, too, for their own piece of the spoils. But for now, at least she had this: the spear in her hand was as solid as ever despite having been gnawed on by powerful jaws. Magicked wood was strong enough to withstand the bite of an adult wyrm, a lesson she had not expected to learn today. But against Pierro’s brute strength and his steel sword, could it last?
“Come on, Anzi. Have you lost your nerve? You can just lay down your arms and let me take the kids. I’ll put in a good word for you when I’m promoted and tell them all about how you took down a wyrm alone. A juvenile one, anyway.”
Sometimes, she really hated Pierro. He was tolerable most of the time, reliable, steady, and amusing company, but his habit of trash talking during competitions and spars was one of the reasons she never held back from thrashing him soundly. Today would be no different. She shifted her weight between her bare feet after dismounting from the wyrm’s neck. The serpent was out cold, knocked unconscious by a perfectly aimed magic-laced strike from her palm straight to the base of its brain, but how long would it be out for? Hard to tell. She would need to take care of this quickly, which meant no humoring Pierro’s theatrics. While he continued to spin his sword, she simply brought her spear back and positioned it upside down in a diagonal stance behind herself, ready to lash out and strike. She didn’t like wasting her time with a preamble before the main act.
“Alright, then, come at me-”
He was still in the middle of taunting her when she lunged across the three-meter distance between them, body so low to the ground she looked more like a desert fox streaking across the sand than a human. It was dim down here at the bottom of the gorge, courtesy of the shadow of the cliffs, but there was enough illumination from the dawn light to see the spark of surprise on his face when she was suddenly two inches in front of him.
She couldn’t parry his sword with her spear half; his blade would cleave through it from the sheer force of her strength. Magicked wood could withstand ordinary steel, but Pierro had a charmed blade that would snip through her weapon if she hit it hard enough. She had to rely on agility alone to avoid the sword while using her spear to land debilitating strikes at close range. Easily done. She just had to put herself in his face - like this.
He only had time for one frustrated curse before she leaped up and rammed her shoulder into his chest, dodging neatly between his sword that had still been mid-twirl and his fist. The upward strike lifted him off the ground, launching him off his feet half a meter. As his body moved backward through the air, she dropped down and twisted her hips so she could lash out with a fierce kick to the abdomen. It connected in mid-air and sent him crashing against the rock wall, and a shower of dust and loose scree cascaded over his head.
Pierro shoved himself back onto his feet and narrowly managed to avoid her second kick, a sweeping one that would have arced in from his left and struck him across the jaw. Close, close - she used her momentum to flip over and kick with her other leg in the same motion. He blocked it with the metal bracer protecting his forearm, but her shin found the soft, vulnerable spot right at the inner bend of his elbow. Before he could react, she hooked her ankle over the unguarded joint and dragged him off-balance. The first impact had been hard enough to send him teetering sideways, and this might be enough to put him on the ground - but no such luck. He planted the tip of his sword into the sand, catching himself, and moved behind it to put more distance between them.
It didn’t take long for him to pull his weapon back out of the loose earth and point it at her, but he also took several hasty steps back. She advanced and followed, holding her spear out horizontally to guard her progress. Pierro liked leaping face-first; she had sparred with him too many times to be taken by surprise with his favorite tricks.
“Relax,” he panted. “Don’t waste your strength. The others are almost here.”
No, they weren’t. If they were, he would have tried to hold out and keep her distracted so they could ambush her. He was stalling for time. But that didn’t mean she had all day to waste on him. She needed to finish this leg of the training, herd the recruits away - the same recruits that were currently trying to sneak away while she and Pierro were distracted. She went for his legs with a vicious semi-circle sweep of her spear before hurling the weapon at the opposite wall behind her. The surprised yelp of the foremost girl answered her, an appropriate reaction to the deadly whizzing that had passed in front of her nose by scant inches. A young desert native child, from what Anzi could tell out from her peripheral vision. Was that what she had looked like back then, too, young and determined? The sheer nostalgia almost made her smile, if not for Pierro grinning stupidly at her.
“You idiot,” he exclaimed. “You’re going to throw away your only weapon for that? For the kids?”
She didn’t smile back. “None of you move,” she ordered with her eyes still fixed on Pierro. “If anyone thinks I can’t catch them” - she threw a fast, hard glower at the black-eyed girl leading them all- “I can. Don’t test me.”
“And what about me? I’m the one to worry about.”
She looked Pierro up and down with vague disgust. “Don’t be stupid. You’re handled.” She didn’t give him the chance to take offense. As the last syllable left her tongue, she lunged forward, this time going under his extended sword and burying her shoulder into his abdomen. She felt and heard the pained breath leave his lungs, but he had taken worse hits from her before. This wouldn’t be nearly enough. Quick - before she was done driving him back, she grit her teeth and angled her hips to lift him off the ground, arms wrapping around his thighs and unbalancing him.
His elbow came down hard on her back, but she ignored the pain. If she didn’t knock him down, he was going to adjust his sword in his grip and swing down next, and she couldn’t afford to nurse sliced flesh and still hope to win the Gauntlet. Behind her, several of the children were still going to make a break for it despite her warning words and spear. She had to finish this quickly. Sorry, Pierro, she thought, but not really. He had been asking for this.
She slammed him back into the ground with no mercy. He was still wheezing out his first curse when she released the back of one thigh, leaned over his supine body, and landed a vicious punch right into his exposed underarm. Unluckily for him, that was also his sword arm. A howl of pain and a whole-body later, she snatched up the dropped weapon drew it edgewise against his throat. But he was a trained soldier, so of course he wouldn’t go down so easily. His other hand dove for the knife sheathed on his outer thigh - and found nothing. He grimaced, and Anzi tilted her head as she peered down at him.
“I keep telling you those are easier to reach for me than for you,” she said. “Too bad.” Before he could think of a proper retort, she lifted the sword and brought the butt of the haft down directly upon his right temple. The solid thump of metal meeting bone was loud enough that it made one of the children gasp behind her, but she was already on her feet before his eyes finished rolling back into his head.
She curled her toes into the sand, adrenaline still coursing through her veins as she counted the recruits. Nine. That meant three had done the smart thing and run off, refusing to be cowed by her threat. The rest still needed to be broken in, but their time here on the desert fringes would teach them to be braver. “I didn’t look forward to this part,” she assured them as she advanced. “But getting beaten is the fastest way to learn.”
And she believed that wholeheartedly as she tossed away Pierro’s knife and blazed in like a storm, delivering to each young recruit a debilitating blow that either knocked them out cold or had them crumpling to the ground, unable to move. A few of them were moaning, but soon, Captain Sanson of the desert garrison would be sending forth his soldiers for clean up and collection. Any child that had failed to advance in time would be collected so they could be treated for their injuries. But that meant her time was running out - now that the children were immobile, it was time to get to the real work.
Moments later, Anzi stood up after smearing her seal on the last child’s forehead with her assigned color dye, a simple circle with a slash through it. All of them, hers. When this was over, she would be standing head and shoulders above the other candidates. But another worry gnawed at her. That wyrm. It was supposed to be a youngling. Those could bruise and slash, but not injure any more grievously than that. And yet the one she had stopped here had been far more dangerous.What in the world had the garrison captain been thinking to allow one of this size to come this far? Was he trying to get the kids killed? Sure, a few small ones were allowed into the Gauntlet every year, and not every recruit survived this part of their training. But this was unthinkable. It was simply too big, too dangerous. Without magic, these children had no chance of fighting back.
Anzi returned to the creature’s head and prodded its scaly head with her foot. One this large should have been captured for military use, not left to roam the Gauntlet’s course and used to terrorize the kids that came to train here. Would she get in trouble for killing it? Probably. No matter the threat, any this size were protected under Imperial Law as a vital resource, and she couldn’t do as she wished to it, not even to ensure the safety of the unconscious children nearby. But she had to go, too; she couldn’t wait for garrison officers to arrive and take over. She would fail the Gauntlet. But how could she just leave? What if there were more wyrms? If Captain Sanson and his quartermaster had overlooked one of this size, there could be more.
There was one solution. It was questionable an messy, but it was her best chance at keeping the children safe while also preserving the wyrm’s life. And the only way she was going to be able to get away and finish the Gauntlet.
“Sorry,” she apologized into the silence, and she hefted Pierro’s sword in her grasp as she stared down at the creature’s serpentine head. For some reason, she felt guilty even though it was scarcely more than an unthinking beast. She’d never been as fond of serpent hunting as the others in her unit, and even now, she wished she could hesitate. But she couldn’t afford to. She had to go. At least she wasn’t killing it, she thought. It would survive.
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
Anzi and Kaizat stood patiently by the enormous stone barrier that made up one of the six massive gates leading out the city. Just beyond the barrier would be a bridge made of the same heavy stone as well, solid and true. The gate guards were the same way. No ordinary beasts, these: while Anzi had her doubts about non-humans, control of the impossibly heavy gates had to fall into the capable hands of the enormous stone golems and no one else. Somewhat man-shaped, just vaguely, while bearing the rippling, coarse texture of rocky earth, the hunched-over creatures stood thrice as high as the tallest human and as many times wide. They had no eyes nor mouth nor ears, but they had a sizable, featureless lump where the head might be on a man along with two arms and two legs as wide around as tree trunks. Mottled gray, black, and white, if they stood stationary, someone who knew no better would mistake them for massive statues chiseled out of a mountainside. But of course, everyone in the Imp