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 bruises and open wounds. Had they fought between themselves over tagging Anzi, their commanding officer had asked. And they had answered yes - but that Anzi had done the worst damage. She had fought back, fierce and dangerous, even breaking one of the soldier’s arms in her violent escape. He had lifted his wounded limb with a sheepish smile to prove it. The girl had clumsy magic, he had said, laughably so, but a powerful body to compensate. Very powerful.
She had become the first and only Runner to make it to the end of the Gauntlet on her first try. They still made her stay and continue to train on the course for the rest of the year, but after that, things were never the same. She made up for her weakness in arcane combat with her prodigious fighting ability and advanced year by year, always at the apex.
It was still that way. She was days shy of eighteen but already here. Pierro and the others were a handful of years older than she was, having worked their way to this point in the usual time. But not her. And she didn’t want to wait to let them catch up, either. This was her last year before she qualified for the greatest honor in Imperial Service.
Becoming a dragon rider. Induction into the Premier Guard, the most prestigious in all the land.
Her heart throbbed in her chest with such violence she had to suck in a deep breath as she ran on, searching for the three missing children. The colonel had explained that to complete this stage, everyone needed twenty-five marked seals, captured targets. Across several tries, the limited points would be distributed among the four Second Runners who caught them, with the task becoming harder and harder over the weeks as the children became more adept at avoiding capture. Twenty five points, twenty five targets was all one needed to complete this stage. The pursuing squad should work together, then split the points equally. Efficient. Easy. Fast. It would take time, but it was the best way.
But she didn’t want to split anything. Didn’t want to work together. Didn’t want anyone slowing her down. She would do this by herself, and she would finish this trial alone. She deserved it, camaraderie be damned. She didn’t care about the others and the humiliation they would face. If they weren’t good enough to stop her when she was all alone, then they didn’t deserve to advance with her anyway. She was already earmarked for final selection - she was the favorite. She was the most promising. If she didn’t grind the others into dust and prove here and now that it was a waste of time to dally any longer, it could be months before she got what she wanted. Hence the risky maneuver of sprinting the fifteen kilometers all the way to the other end of the canyon. Instead of fighting over all of the targets at once, she had meant to mark the majority of them here then chase after any that slipped away.
Only she could do that, the fastest out of everyone by far. And she had enough strength in her to fight, too. Dangerously.
She deserved this. She deserved to win.
That left one problem. The escaping targets would be running straight into the arms of the other, and they were already on their way. If she didn’t get to them quickly enough, it would be a vicious brawl - not one on one, not even one on two if Pierro regained consciousness in time. He was out of commission now, but he would recover soon. Too soon.
She couldn’t lose here. She was here to be a dragon rider, and no one was going to stop her.
Anzi glanced down at her hands as she sprinted down the gorge and grimaced at the silver liquid coating her hands and arms all the way up to the elbows. It had been necessary, all the warm serpent blood dripping down her fingers as she splattered it over every child with a quick swipe. The wyrm was alive, but she had needed its scent to mark the recruits and drive off other serpents. It had been the only way. She wasn’t a mage; she couldn’t set up a barrier seal to protect the unconscious children. Or Pierro for that matter. He was an ass, but they were comrades. Besides, no one should suffer being eaten alive.
A flash of movement. Finally! She launched herself out of her thoughts as she veered down the left side of the fork that divided the gorge. That was definitely one of the children, light beige desert garb. They would learn soon: the first thing they should have done when they left the starting point was to camouflage themselves by rolling around in the dust and coating their clothes with dust and sand to better blend in with the terrain. But it was too late for this one. She leaped and bounded off a rocky ledge, one arm outstretched to grab the running child by the back of his loose thawb. That was the other disadvantage the little recruits had, loose clothes -
She recoiled and twisted in mid-air, falling to the ground in a crouch with her hand over her chest. Oh, gods, whatever had just struck her had stung deep. She clutched at the bruise she could feel blossoming already where the stone had nailed her right under her leather shoulder guard. Lethal aim. If it weren’t for her uncommon resilience, that would have been enough to make her entire right arm numb. As it was, the nerves buzzed up and down from her fingers to her shoulder, protesting with great complaint.
Damn it. The other two were already here, Aimee and Doufan. She hadn’t been expecting them to show up yet, but here she had run into them before she was ready. Not to mention she still had to track down the remaining targets. With her hand still covering her sore chest, she lifted her gaze to find the two soldiers waiting for her fifteen meters ahead. Doufan on the left, Aimee on the right. They were too far away for her to leap at them, but close enough for Aimee to lob projectiles at her with irritatingly good aim as she had demonstrated a moment ago. The tall, sharp-faced blonde was impressively magic-attuned with the useful ability to throw small objects around. But that was the only thing about her that Anzi envied. The threat from her paled in comparison to the other soldier, who was already approaching with his halberd pointed squarely at her trunk.
That wasn’t good. After Anzi, he was undoubtedly the most dangerous between the four. While he lacked Pierro’s brute strength, Doufan’s weapon mastery was second to none. He could wield his halberd and the two short swords crossed over his back more skillfully than anyone she’d ever seen, and there was one other crucial difference between him and Pierro: he never sparred with Anzi using his full strength, so she had no idea what he was really capable of. She knew it, and he knew that she knew it. It was a smart move since they were competing against each other. In the end, they might both be called into the elite guard together, but the superior candidate always had the edge which meant it was a good idea to conceal one’s hand from the other. Meanwhile, she rarely held back in spars which meant Doufan had seen far more of what she could do than she had of him.
“Fair warning, Pierro won’t be coming to help you two anytime soon,” she called out as he approached with light, careful steps. “It’s just you two against me. No one else.”
“That’s fine!” Aimee called back. “You just need to go down next!”
Another rock came whizzing toward her through the air at deadly speed, and Anzi ducked just in time to avoid it while keeping her eyes fixed on the approaching man. Trouble. He had closed more than half the distance now. If Aimee gave him another opening like that, he would come streaking in to impale her without hesitation.
Damn those two. Just as Anzi often paired up with Pierro, those two stuck to each other like tree sap. They were rarely apart and always chose each other first when everyone needed to partner up for training expeditions. Now that she thought about it, they probably would have double-crossed Pierro after dispatching her, which was why he had left them behind in the first place. No wonder. At the time, she’d dismissed his recklessness as a terribly executed attempt at a trap, but now she realized he hadn’t had much of a choice anyway.
Hindsight. She might have had a use for him after all, perhaps tricking him into turning against the other two and then removing him afterward, but too bad. Now she had to deal with this alone. But there was an upside to the situation: she could see a heap of beige clothed-bodies back there at Aimee’s feet even though Doufan was clearly trying to obstruct her view of it by advancing up her line of sight, even shifting to follow her when she tried to lean to the side for a better look behind him. That only solidified her suspicion that Aimee had possession of the last three targets, and she returned her attention to the halberd-wielding young man who looked ready to skewer her.
His dark brown eyes were eagle-fierce and narrowed, head ducked and mouth set in a hard grimace. He was going to give this his all from the very start. One one hand, that was an encouraging sign. It meant that he thought he needed to, if he wanted to take her down. It meant he thought she had a chance. On the other hand, between him and Aimee’s troubling ability to harass her at a distance, she would have liked to be underestimated at least a little.
All or nothing, now. She drew her spear from the loop woven into the back of her lightweight leather armor. She hadn’t been able to bring Pierro’s sword with her. Charmed as it was, it would become heavy and blundering once she carried it too far from him.
So all she had was this spear, and it would have to do. And that was fine.
She hefted the weapon and tightened her grip on it, preparing to clash.
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
She should have known these knuckle-draggers would be here. “Welcome back, Anzi, didn’t expect to see you so soon. Fell off, did you? Passing muster for the Premier Guard harder than you thought?” “If I fell off, then you should be worried about where you’ll end up,” she said flatly, but she didn’t bother putting on a frosty front otherwise. Blunt words were enough to get her point across when it came to this gaggle of malcontent soldiers who thought she was a wise target to heckle. Oscar had never been very smart though, so while his friends would know better than to do much more than sneer in her direction, he was the one who would be raising hell soon enough. Too bad all the other training grounds were already reserved for drills. She had come up the hill to check with the quartermaster before escorting Kaizat over, knowing there would be trouble-making loiterers about. Like Oscar and his friends.