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 double from the sheer force. Damn them. If they were alone, she could have taken them down one on one, but like this?It irritated her that they would collaborate against her when she obviously deserved the promotion more. Skewing the odds this way was a disservice to the Empire. What would they do if one of them was really selected for the Premier Guard? They would be less useful than she would be. If they were truly loyal, they would be yielding to her, not letting their greed and personal ambition get in the way of serving the people. But that was all right. It just meant she needed to exceed herself for the sake of the Empire. So long as she got past these two -
She recoiled again from yet another rock and blinked away the blood streaming over her brow to drip into her right eye. Dark hells, this would have been a good time to have a helmet, but none of them had been allowed one. She had to stop retreating. It could be that once they drove her back far enough, Aime might pick up one of the targets and run off on her own. Anzi couldn’t afford to lose even one of them. It would be humiliation, plain and simple. But Doufan gave her no time to contemplate her options. He stabbed forward with the halberd toward her abdomen, aiming for soft flesh with every intent to pierce her straight through. They weren’t supposed to attempt killing blows on each other, but this was the Gauntlet. Soldiers died here, and lots of things could happen. No one would know.
And he definitely wanted to happen to her. Wise. If he tried for anything less than a lethal blow, she could turn it on him and make him regret it. She didn’t like it, but he was making the right choice to go all in - just like she would. Since he was going this far, she had no reason to balk at doing the same. They were supposed to be comrades, but they were competing for stakes so high she could set aside moral hesitations.
When he next tried to jab down at her feet, she danced back and evaded the curved blade by a hair before stomping hard on the weapon’s lowered head. It wouldn’t break thanks to the reinforced wood and binding of the metal, but there was one thing weaker than the power holding his magicked halberd together: his physical grip on it. If she could just get his hand to slip even for a half second - but he refused to let go even when he was forced to bend his knees and crouch under the force of her ferocious stomp on the blade. How he managed to hold on, she didn’t know. She was inordinately strong, even by elite standards, and while Doufan was a fearsome fighter, he couldn’t stand against her in a contest of strength. But ah, there! She caught the pained grimace that flashed across his face at exactly the right time. So his efforts had cost him after all. He should have let go or at least let her press the halberd down to the ground and sweep it out from under her foot afterward. Instead, he had hurt himself, but where? His wrist? Elbow? Shoulder? Where was his new vulnerability, his new weakness that she could exploit? She raised her spear and aimed for his right shoulder, his dominant arm, so she could drive it through and pin him.
But two more rocks slammed into her and she cried out with a half-snarl, face and neck throbbing horribly. She hadn’t whirled away in time to avoid the projectiles, and worse, she had only managed to nick Doufan’s skin and nothing more thanks to the third rock that had struck her hand and sent a crippling wave of pain through her fingers. Aimee! Damn her! Frustration and anger flooded her when she felt Doufan kick at her shin next, trying to bring her down to the ground to his crouching level. Her first instinct was to stop him from knocking her down, but at the same time, continuing to stand over him would do nothing but make her an impossible target to miss for Aimee. She couldn’t let him get back up, and yet he was the only thing shielding her from the other woman.
Wrong. Two more thwacking missiles proved Aimee could hit her anyway. None of this strategizing would get her anywhere; she was getting pelted hard enough to collect deep gashes and a ringing headache. She had no choice, then. It would take all the wind out of her for a few seconds, and she hated resorting to this because she was still terrible at it, but she hadn’t expected to be so overwhelmed. If she had more time, she could think of a clever and painless counter, but that was beyond her now as she retreated several steps. She had to do it, and now, before either of them pulled another trick. She spun her spear in hand in a blur, attempting to deflect at least some of the rocks that were now whizzing at her in a nonstop stream. Aimee had been hiding her true capability all this time too, it seemed. She had never been this good in the last three months that all of them had begun training together. Sneaky, both of them, holding back in order to maintain the edge. But that just proved how unsuitable they were to advance. A good soldier would give their all, never greedily holding onto what they could offer up instead.
A colossal wave of magic exploded from her body and rushed out in all directions in a perfect sphere, kicking up dust and and a fierce shower of sand. It hurled Doufan back down onto the ground where he let out a surprised wheeze. He had reacted with a psionic shield of his own, nearly in time - but too little, too late. It shattered and dissipated, leaving him with a bloody nose, bloodshot eyes, and a face pale as death. What was this? She had thought he would respond faster; he hadn’t been her main object. Aimee had been, who wouldn’t have seen what was coming since Doufan obstructed her view. But this was no time for Anzi to worry about others. She stumbled and tripped over Doufan’s splayed legs, their shins crashing. With a nauseated retch, she keeled over sideways. Her balance was gone, completely. Panic surged through her when she realized she had both overestimated and underestimated herself at the same time: her psionic burst had been far stronger than she had expected, which meant she was also far more debilitated by it than she had expected, too. She clawed at the sand, desperate to get back up, but all she could do was twitch and writhe as the world spun around her in all directions at once.
How could this have happened? She hadn’t resorted to doing this in many months, and even her commanding officer had advised not to practice or otherwise use this ability because of its clumsiness. So how could her magic be so much stronger than when she had done this last?
And for that matter, what had happened to Aimee? Even in the depths of intense vertigo, Anzi was coherent enough to wonder why she could no longer feel rocks slinging into her with fracturing force. Had she stopped because Anzi was no longer a threat, or had she gone down, too? Or maybe she was using this chance to run off with the targets, Anzi thought in a panic, and sudden fear sent feverish energy running through her vein, lending enough willpower to force herself to her hands and knees. When she lifted her head, still dizzy, through double vision she spotted a crumpled form lying in the sand six or seven meters away.
Was that Aimee? The range of the concussive burst should only have knocked her off her feet, not out cold. And yet it had reduced Doufan to a catatonic mess, too. She couldn’t pretend to know what to expect anymore. Either way, her confusion, her surprise, both were irrelevant. She was a soldier, and she had an objective to fulfill. She couldn’t waste time tottering on the ground like this. She needed to get up and carry on. Both of the others were out of commission and no longer threats, and now there was only one thing left to do.
Oh, no. Her eyes widened as a belated realization dawned on her far too late. The children! She forced herself to focus her vision until she spotted three heaps several meters behind Aimee’s fallen form. Had she hurt them, too? How could she have been so stupid? She had only been thinking about how to end the fight, but in the process - ! She needed to go, needed to make sure she hadn’t…
She fought through the urge to give into the dizziness and collapse again, fighting for every centimeter that her hands and knees dragged through the sand. Her nose was bleeding from both nostrils, and there was still more blood streaming from her forehead and the various other wounds she had collected courtesy of Aimee’s aim and Doufan’s nicks with his halberd. But finally, she dragged herself the final stretch past the other woman and reached the unconscious children lying side by side.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she felt steady pulses under her fingertips for all three of them. They were a mess and predictably bleeding from several orifices, too, but the medic would take care of that. Maybe having been unconscious beforehand had protected them, who knew? Either way, they were alive, which meant she could go ahead and do what she needed to do. With great effort, she raised her hand and reached for the closest child’s forehead first, index finger smeared with her red dye.
* * *
A hundred miles away in the direction of the deep desert, a man lifted his head and stared into the distance. Under the dawn light, his molten gold eyes gleamed brighter than the sky somehow, and a patch of faint, black-tinged scales rippled into existence at his temples under his dark, tousled hair.
He continued to stare until at last, the man behind him asked a quiet question. “Lord, is something wrong?”
Instead of answering right away, he relaxed finally, and nodded to indicate they should continue walking once more. “No,” he said.
He glanced back at the direction he had felt the pulse of energy originate from. Unmistakable. He would recognize it anywhere.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “I felt her.”
“Then should we change our route and go to her instead?”
“No, keep going.” He fixed his golden eyes straight ahead toward their destination. “We’ll find each other soon.”
“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.
“What do you think you’re doing.” Anzi had no choice but to remain in place since she didn’t dare step in front of the chieftain, but if she could, she would have been in Oscar’s face in an eye blink. Was he crazy or stupid or both? Didn’t he recognize what kind of guest she was escorting by the priceless regalia he wore? Her eyes narrowed to sharp slits as she glared at her fellow soldier, violently willing him to move back. “I’m just welcoming -” “It’s all right, Anzi. I’m sure he means no harm.” She couldn’t bring herself to look over at Kaizat, not even when she felt a soothing hand rest upon the leather guard over her shoulder. This was humiliating. No discipline, she seethed. And what was Oscar’s plan, exactly? What did he think was going to happen? Now that he had issued what was little more than a poorly disguised challenge, the honor of the Empire’s entire military rested on a pair of shoulders more suitable for posing for portraits than fighting. And yet even if he won, th