Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright September 16th, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Mallory crept up to the end of the wall. Her boots crunched and slid on the rubble that covered the sidewalk. Every step made her cringe. She gripped her SR in front of her, forgetting the proper form that she’d been taught. The top poked around the corner. It gave away her position at every turn.
She’d lost sight of the objective when she’d crossed from the fields into the town. The buildings were three stories—too tall to see over, but she was sure it was close, across the fields north of the village. She read the sign on the corner. It was bolted to a green-painted iron pole.
She made a mental note. This was the third.
Cavanaugh. Haymarket. Caddy.
She heard a guttural shout. The next moment the corner of the building exploded in a cloud of broken brick and cement. Mallory turned and ran, fleeing across the street the way she came. Her ears were ringing. She cast a desperate look behind her, praying that her enemy had chosen not to pursue. It was a vain hope. She dove into an alley.
She’d seen them. They couldn’t really be the Arro, could they?
If they weren’t, the instructors impersonating them were doing a bang-up job. She’d seen the posters. She’d never seen one in real life. They were terrifying: huge, clawed, black-skinned to the point of purple and blue, with dagger-like teeth and long bundles of muscular tendrils where a human’s hair would be.
No eyes. How could such creatures exist? The question shook her to the core.
She brought up her SR and pointed the emitter at the sundered corner of the building, waiting for them to come around. Yet another rookie mistake. The Arro could walk through walls. They didn’t need streets.
When the enemy emerged they came from the side of the building opposite the alley, directly across from her position. She turned to face them as they opened fire. The air crackled as slender bolts of blue-white fire came streaking towards her.
She flung herself back and tripped, falling. Her head cracked against the cobbles as the enemy magic sizzled over her and slammed into the alley walls, busting fist-sized holes in the brick.
Mallory stayed down, pulling her head up. She held out her SR crossways, lining up the emitter. She couldn’t see a damn thing through the dust, but there wasn’t time to reconfigure the SR for a spray. She fired her last-used spell, a long range blast, blindly across the street.
She felt the energy leave her in a heap, too much for an engagement at this range. The shot took forever to form and fire. They would have already moved. The wall across the street flashed and exploded as she rolled over and launched herself into a full run down the alley, praying her enemies were suppressed.
It was the third time she’d forgotten to reconfigure her weapon back to a more generalized attack after configuring a specialty spell. She made it around the corner just as another volley came hurtling down the alley. It missed her by inches.
Desperately, she scanned the street for a place to hide.
Snap out of it.
She tried to remember Elijah’s lessons. Don’t be distracted by the story of what is happening. It’s going to change.
She scanned the street again.
There weren’t any signs, only a mechanic across the road. The sign over the open garage said Jackson-Gass. She ran inside, sprinting for a door at the back. It looked like an office. If she could make it there she could shelter for a few minutes and wait for the commotion to settle. The village was small. If she was lucky she was only a few streets from the edge.
The office had big glass window that overlooked the shop. If she stayed low she’d be alright, and with a bit of luck it would appear empty to anyone who happened to glance inside. She recalled a lesson given by Blackstaff. If you have to hide, remember: just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t still looking for you. I guarantee they are.
She ducked through the office door and crouched, grateful for even a few moments of peace. She propped her SR against the wall and massaged her hand, she’d been gripping the weapon so hard her palm felt like a rock. There was a desk tucked into the corner. The paperwork inside would tell her exactly where she was…but she wasn’t going to look.
It was maddening, spectating like this, witnessing the countless mistakes and errors, powerless to act. It was like watching the world’s most infuriating pantomime.
Mallory privately wondered why she couldn’t simply remind herself to check the desk later and then watch it happen, but that wasn’t the way the magic worked. The only way to give yourself that kind of advantage was to discipline yourself to do that sort of thing all the time; that way if you ever looked forward, your habits would give you an edge. The future was real, but it couldn’t be changed until it became the present.
It was at this point that the Arro came through the wall.
Mallory cursed as she grabbed her SR, the top third of which had been visible through the window where she’d propped it up. Stupid! She spun and fired as the huge creature extended a hand.
Still a long-range blast!
The shot was late. The enemy’s magic went off first. There was a flash of light. The force sent her flying across the room. She slammed into the wall. The force drove the wind out of her. She felt her ribs crunch and her shoulder wrenched with a gut-twisting pop. She felt a trickle of blood run down her face from where her SR had smacked into her forehead. Dazed, she looked up as the massive enemy closed in. As it approached, the dark, blue-purple skin and hair-like fleshy cords melted away into bluish ethereal smoke, revealing a dark green uniform.
He had four diamond-shaped pins on his collar.
The fourth-year knelt down beside her and examined her head wound. She didn’t have the strength to fight him off. Besides, she knew the test was over.
“Congratulations, cadet,” he said succinctly. “You’re dead.”
Mallory let go of the focus, took off the blindfold, and removed her headgear. The sounds of the present returned like a draft under the door.
Her headache returned. She reached into her pocket for the bottle of pain killers the medic had given her. It was just like the first time. She would have to speak with them again, after the exams. In the meantime, she had to get to the library.
Cavenaugh. Haymarket. Caddy. Jackson-Gass.
Hopefully they would be enough.
Kazen sat across from Eddie in the common room, exhausted from their practice at the range. Magic certainly took it out of you. Eddie was no better off. He must have rebuilt that SR two- dozen times, but at least they’d got it done. It was a simple design. Easy to build and easy to use.
Killian hadn’t let them take it with them. You had to be a third year to carry an SR on campus, and according to him it wouldn’t matter. He’d let it slip that you weren’t allowed to take any gear with you to the IB final. You had to scavenge for materials and build your equipment on your own. Thank god they’d built the weapon so simply. He’d helped them sketch it instead.
The result was the long piece of paper in front of them. They’d been staring at it for over an hour. Kazen rubbed his eyes.
“There’s no way I’m going to be able to build this.”
“Sure you will. It’s all just pieces in the end. They go together like…I don’t know, toilet plumbing.”
“Nice metaphor. Wonder why I haven’t seen that on an NPA poster.”
“You’ll be fine.”
Kazen shook his head.
“You heard Killian. Where am I going to find all these components?”
“All over the place. Wood and stone are easy enough to find; same with glass.”
“And the emitter? The choke?”
Eddie leaned back.
“I don’t know…radios? Phones have quartz in them.”
Kazen gave him a flat look.
“Look, you don’t need a lot. Just be creative. Improvise.”
Kazen slumped, straining to keep his eyes open as he struggled to memorize the drawing. The door opened and Mallory came in carrying a long roll of paper. Eddie looked up.
She sat down and unrolled the paper. It took up most of the table.
Eddie looked at it.
“What’s with the map?”
She got out a pen.
“It’s Farmbase Darryl. I got a copy from the records room at the library.”
Kazen looked it over. It was a little village built on the intersection of three roads. There were fields around it for miles.
“I think this is where they’re doing the exam.”
Eddie’s eyes lit up.
“What? How do you know?”
Mallory answered reluctantly.
“I saw it.”
Kazen looked up at her. “You used prognostication to see the test?”
“Isn’t that cheating?”
“I asked. They said it’s okay.”
Eddie glanced at the map.
“Then are we allowed to see this too? I mean, we didn’t look into the future.”
She shook her head.
“Killian said they were watching us. I don’t think they would let us get away with actually cheating.”
Eddie scratched his chin.
“Watching us? I didn’t know we were that interesting.”
Kazen furrowed his brow.
“It makes sense. They let you help me with the SR, after all. But why watch us? We’re only cadets.”
Mallory started drawing.
“They’re watching Kaz. Killian said so. It has something to do with when he took the test.”
“Maybe they think you’ve got potential. I guess they don’t know you like we do.”
Kazen punched him in the arm.
Mallory kept drawing.
“This is the route I took: I started here, and then I crossed this field and went into town…here. There was a balloon in the sky here. I was trying to get to it.”
Eddie chimed in.
“You mean finish line? So this is what…an obstacle course?”
They watched as Mallory went on drawing.
“I went down this street…and this one. Then I stopped here and went down this alley. I know there was an enemy patrol right here.”
She drew a circle. Kazen looked at it.
“How do you know?”
“They shot at me.”
Eddie’s eyes widened.
“They shot at you!?”
“Fourth-year cadets disguised to look like the Arro.”
“You saw them? What did they look like?”
He put his face in his hands.
“I was really, really hoping for an obstacle course.”
Mallory kept drawing.
“I went down the alley and into this building. I didn’t see anything after that.”
Kazen raised an eyebrow.
“They got me.”
The table went silent. Kazen looked up at her. She kept her eyes on the map. It was Eddie who finally spoke.
“Did you…you know.”
“Die? No. They just knocked me down and said I was dead.”
“Does that mean you’re going to fail the exam?”
Mallory’s brow knitted up and she frowned. He could tell she was worried. In the end she took a breath and shook her head.
“No,” she said. “It means I would have.”
Eddie blew out a breath.
“That’s heavy. If you can’t pass I don’t know how I’m going to.”
“That’s the point. Now that we know what’s going to happen, we can change it.”
Kazen sat quietly. She was putting up a tough front. The funny part was she didn’t have to. What she’d already done was incredible. They’d only been at the academy for a few weeks, and already she was far more capable than any of them. He wanted to say something, but he only managed to stare.
Eddie slapped his shoulder. He snapped out of it.
Mal crooked a smile.
“You get stuck?”
He smiled sheepishly.
“Only a little.”
She tossed her hair.
“Well, I have that effect on people.”
They laughed and she turned back to the map.
“So, any ideas?”
They all looked. Kazen was at a loss. None of them had a head for this sort of thing.
Eddie stood up.
“We need Taylor.”
They both replied.
“She’s on the jogging track. I’ll go find her.”
“We’ll go with you.”
They left their things on the table and headed out.
Adrian sat in the corner of the room, quietly studying the textbook in front of him. The librarian had let him check it out despite his only being a first year. All it took was a little old-fashioned social engineering. He’d managed to get the sergeant-major to give him a slip to remove research material from the library to prepare for the exam; once he’d secured that, it had been relatively easy to convince the librarian to let him check out a higher-level text by claiming that it was referred to in one of the entry level manuals.
There was no harm in checking the reference, right?
It was ordinarily restricted to third years and above. Still, he was confident he would be able to grasp the material. He had a gift for study. A lifetime of advanced schooling and private tutors had convinced him—if nothing else—of that. When the others left he got up quietly and went to look at the map.
If there were soldiers in the fields and the town it would be safest to avoid them entirely, yet she hadn’t. A mistake? Or had there been some restriction?
He’d dealt with restrictions before.
He returned to his book.
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