Before Lethen was even fully out of the ground he was digging, his shovel cutting through the sand with ease. At first no one said anything and just watched, but one by one they joined in the excavation.
“She shouldn’t be too far down,” Lethen said. “I think I was near the surface when I lost her.”
“Can’t you just reach in and pull her out?” Mikael asked. He grimaced as he pulled himself closer.
“I don’t have good control of my power. I didn’t even mean for us to go under. I was hoping to drag her to the ground and knock her out.”
Gianni smacked Lethen with his hand. “Stop it with the shovel. If you shove that thing into her head, it’ll kill her just as well as leaving her buried.”
Lethen looked down at the tool and nodded. He had been digging like a possessed man, but if he actually hit her with that fervor, it would make things worse, not better.
It wasn’t long before they saw dark hair mixed in with the sand. It truly had spread out like she was in a liquid because it took them almost another full minute to expose her wild, panicked eyes. Another few seconds revealed her nose, which immediately began to devour the air. They almost had her mouth freed when Mikael finally got close enough to help, but instead, he caused a small sand slide, destroying her ability to breath once again.
After finally freeing her mouth, Lena let out a string of expletives that made even the senseis watching cringe.
Mikael looked across the shallow pit. When he caught his comrade’s eye, he glanced down at Lena and back at Gianni, who seemed to understand what he hadn’t said.
“I propose a surrender,” Mikael said.
“Are you yielding to us?” Lethen asked.
“Not exactly. I can see that you can’t control your gift and I don’t want to be buried alive. Who knows if the next time you drag one of us down, you’ll be able to find us again in time. I won’t yield to you, but I will give you the win if you let us leave. Of course, this is all my idea. I will have to have the consent of every member of my team that can still talk.”
Lena’s thoughts on this subject became clear immediately, and they weren’t in agreement with Mikael’s offer. Gianni just nodded. Apparently he also had no wish to be buried alive.
Mikael looked down at Lena in her hole and came to a decision. He shifted again where he sat, causing another small avalanche of sand to block her mouth. “Looks like we only have two members still capable of speech. Are we in agreement Gianni?”
“I find this acceptable.”
Muffled screams came from below.
“Then as we are in agreement, we officially concede this game to squad 1C and accept our loss gracefully.”
The muffled screams got louder and Lethen could imagine the sand slowly pouring down Lena’s throat. Her nostrils were still above ground, but he didn’t think she could be very comfortable.
A horn blew in the distance and the same announcer that heralded the beginning of the test came on the school wide sound system. “The first trial of the year ends in a surprising upset for squad 1A as they were forced to concede to the clearly underrated 1C. Would all students still conscious please make your way back to your assigned areas. Your fallen comrades will be returned to you once their injuries have been seen to.”
And with that, Marnie, Lethen and Angel left to the south, leaving Mikael and Gianni to dig their angry friend from the dirt.
Angus enjoyed watching Paige squirm as rage and embarrassment fought inside her. Her A team losing to his C team in the first trial of the year was like a slap in the face. He glanced at the rest of the assembled watchers. The three masters were in animated discussion, chatting loudly about his team’s potential. The only one who hadn’t been able to showcase his skills had been Prolier, but he’d get his chance. Most of the conversation was about Lethen unlocking his gift. The ability to swim through earth was very rare, almost a legend. As long as he could control the daemon, he had a bright future ahead of him.
Strangely, the headmaster had already left. Well, not that strange if Angus really thought about it. He was a man who wanted to watch and laugh while Lethen failed. To see him excelling must be like a knife to the guts. To see him with such a strong gift, well that was just turning the knife to open the wound farther.
Paige wouldn’t even meet his eye as Angus tried to get her attention. “C’mon Paige, we had a deal. Spill.”
“Not here,” she said. “Meet me in ten minutes, one mile south of this position.”
And with that, she scampered away.
The trio from squad 1C were animated as they walked back to their camp in the industrial sector of the campus.
“I wish I’d been able to see the look on Ventrus’s face when you pegged him, Angel,” Lethen said. “I bet he was shocked for the split second before he hit the dirt. And the shot that knocked Gianni off balance, that was beautiful.”
“Thanks.” Angel said. “I’m glad I helped, but I didn’t awaken my daemon’s gift today. You know how lucky you are don’t you?”
“It is a pretty cool gift.”
“It’s more than just cool,” Marnie said. “It’s one of a few powers that hasn’t been seen in hundreds of years. Some didn’t even believe that it still existed, until now that is. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of gift that you’ll be able to keep a secret for long.”
“What about you?” Angel asked. “I wasn’t keeping track of the time but it seemed like you ran about two miles in under five minutes. That’s just not possible without some help.”
“It must’ve been longer than that,” Marnie lied. In fact it had been closer to three and a half minutes. “I know I got a second wind once Gail’s poison wore off and I knew Lethen was in trouble. I got there as quick as I could.”
“Well I’m glad you did.” Lethen said. “If you guys hadn’t shown up when you did, I’d have been toast.”
“Not if you had been in control of your gift,” Marnie said. “Once you can do that at will, you’ll be damn near unstoppable. Imagine being able to disappear during battle and pop back out behind your foe. I’m not mad that you’re on my team.”
When they arrived they were surprised to find that Angus wasn’t there; they hadn’t been in any hurry and expected him to beat them. Angus might not be there, but someone else was.
“My, my,” Master Brascko said. “I was right when I said I’d have to keep an eye on you. Always full of surprises. To think that you would end up with one of the ancient powers. I was hoping to have a word with Angus about you and the rest of your team. Do you know where he is?”
“Actually sir,” Lethen said, “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“Hmm, most unusual. Perhaps he’s been held up somewhere. I’m sure everyone he runs into will want to congratulate him on the victory. It’s been several years since we screwed up this much.”
“Screwed up sir?”
Master Brascko waved his hand dismissively. “I meant no offense. It’s just that we usually do quite well at gauging the abilities of the new recruits. I’ve seen many shifts in pecking order, but it’s rare for a C squad to go straight up to A in one year. Of course, I’m only speculating right now, but if you stay on this track, it’s entirely possible that you’ll start second year as 2A.”
“It’s too early to tell.” Angus walked up behind the students. “You all fought very well, but there was certainly some luck involved in that victory.”
“Oh Angus really,” Brascko said. “Don’t deflate them so. They did very well.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of them, but there was too much chance. They need a lot more training before they’ll be ready for anything too dangerous.”
“They thought on their feet and adapted as new information presented itself. What more can you ask?”
Angus mulled it over. “I apologize. You are, of course, right. And a thought has occurred to me. Do you think I may so bold as to ask for a mission as soon as this first round of trials is complete? I saw more advancement in a few hours today than I’ve seen from them in a week. They seem to learn better by doing, rather than training.”
“I think that’s a splendid idea. I’ll bring you a list of possibilities once I’ve had a chance to look over what’s available. Nothing too taxing of course, but perhaps something a little more challenging than a normal first year mission.”
Angus nodded. “I appreciate that. Now, what did you wish to talk to me about?”
Brascko laughed. “Actually dear boy, you’ve already answered my question. I was going to see if you needed anything to assist in their schooling. When a team looks this promising, we try to nurture that potential in any way possible. It appears that what would help them most would be a mission. Congratulations on today’s win. I will be back in contact very soon.” He walked away without a backward glance.
Angus turned to his students. “You did very well today, especially Marnie. The way you used Gail’s poison against her was a stroke of tactical genius. You are the one who was certainly the most impressive. Angel, clearing the dunes was a good idea, but far too time consuming. Lethen, you did well but only because of the timely arrival of your first gift. Without that, today would’ve gone very differently. Renala just hid behind her weapon, but that was her purpose. Prolier did virtually nothing.”
“To his defense,” Angel said, “he was poisoned and passed out on the way to his next opponent.”
“That’s no excuse, though it is partially my fault. I have never been a fan of poisons and have been neglectful in teaching you about them. You should’ve been supplied with the most common antidotes before the test. I won’t be making that mistake again. As for right now, we’re waiting for the other two to be healed, but that doesn’t mean we just sit still. Marnie, I want you working with Angel on his close combat fighting, but please wipe your blade off first. I’m sure there are still traces of the poison on it. Lethen, come with me.”
Angus led Lethen off to the side. “I just had a very interesting conversation with Paige, the sensei of 1A. It appears that the mystery of your daemon has more players in it than we’d been made aware of. She had been one of the ones hired by the headmaster to catch the daemon in the first place. Her and another, who she wouldn’t name, caught it far to the north. In Russia.”
Lethen nodded. “So it’s as we suspected. This all started with the Russians.”
“Yes, and that’s why I requested a mission so soon. The guy who assigns them is a friend, and there’s always something going on with our northern comrades. I will make sure our journey is in that direction.”
“Do you know where to start?”
“That’s where it gets even more interesting. Some outlaws have started breeding daemons up there, which is highly illegal. This particular daemon was caught on the lands of a bandit you already know: Silva. Soon it will be time to pay him a little visit.”
Lethen closed his eyes. He prayed he’d be ready for it.