3

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.

Comments (4)
goodnovel comment avatar
Mendy Howard
Very nice start!
goodnovel comment avatar
Rose Blink
Good , i good
goodnovel comment avatar
Bella Jersey
I’m holding my breath
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