She was exhausted but unable to sleep as Ash transported her and Kai back to camp. Qing had implored him not to go, but there was no dissuading him now that his men were stable and those who could be saved had been saved. After all, those were his men back at camp, too, the ones who had had to remain behind.
No one said a thing as the Oasis slithered through the sands. Kai, despite how exhausted he must be and fearing for his defenseless men on top of that, took Anzi to the spring and bathed her gently. Her wounds refused to close, and even when he slid his hands over them to try to impart healing power through their mate bond, they remained angry and red and gushed blood anew anytime she shifted too much.
“It’ll be all right,” he murmured as he kissed her wounds while she sat numbly in the water. “We’ll be there soon.”
Soon wasn’t enough. Night was already falling, and it had been that long since she heard Netra’s
It was hot. Blistering hot. The sun had set halfway and Anzi was still sweltering under her clothes. If the stiff wind rising from the direction of the horizon didn’t carry off the heat, the desert rabbits and foxes would hide in their burrows in dark underground shade, knowing it was better to go hungry and try again tomorrow. And that would mean nothing for Anzi to hunt. Unacceptable. This was the final meal. Tomorrow, she would be on her way to the Imperial City, and there would be no more hunts. Tonight had to be perfect, for both Baba and for Oza who had been crying since morning and hadn’t stopped once. He was afraid. Not just because he had to leave with her, but because Mama had been inconsolable and raging for hours now. “Why are you taking them from me?” a woman moaned from within the thatched-roof mud hut. “O muk-hua, they’re taking my children.” “Enough. They’re mine, too. If you’re going to be like this, I’ll take you to the elders and have them put you back in the quie
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 yo
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