Remnants of Gods [Book 1 of the Remnants Trilogy]

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Chapter 5

Annabel woke up the next day feeling more like herself than ever. The fact alone that she got up an hour before her alarm clock even rang put her in a good mood, and after a shower and a quick breakfast, she felt so energetic that she couldn’t wait for the training session. Weekends were a chore-free period, so they spent most of their time training or working on their individual skills.

She tested her powers on the way, making sure she had full control over them, and she was relieved at how quickly they responded to her call. When she arrived at the yard behind the mansion which they used for outdoor training, the place was still empty. She checked her watch and sighed, seeing as she had half an hour to spare. She considered running the track by herself, but decided against it - their trainer, Peter, had probably changed the layout of the traps and she didn’t want to risk triggering one of them without any backup.

A chill ran down her spine and she looked around, painfully aware of somebody’s eyes on her. She noticed no one in sight, so she instinctively looked to the windows of the mansion. Now that she thought about it, one of those rooms had to be Larson’s, but she doubted he had nothing better to do than to watch her from his window.

Shrugging off the uncomfortable sensation, she started her warm-up. She was no athlete by any means, but the ballet lessons her mother forced her to go to for years taught her a thing or two about the importance of a good stretch. And also, thanks to them, she wasn’t one of those who were ready to cough their lungs after running a mile.

By the time she finished with the stretching, most of the other recruits from her group had joined her, yawning or murmuring complaints about the early hour.

“Sweetheart, have I told you that your ass looks especially sexy in a tracksuit?” a familiar voice said from behind her.

“Gross,” Anna grimaced, glancing at Jordan. “Go away.”

She noticed him smirking, but luckily, he said nothing else.

“Good morning! You’re early today.”

Annabel turned her back on Jordan, smiling at Brian, who was walking toward them. He was also wearing his tracksuit, his jacket zipped to his chin even though the sun was up, and it looked like they were going to have a clear, sunny day for a change. Claire was dragging her feet next to him, rubbing her eyes.

“Morning,” Anna greeted him.

“Ugh, why can’t they let us sleep in at least once a week? What makes them think we will be more productive this early?” Claire whined, stretching her arms.

“You suck at any time of the day, so what does it matter?” Jordan sneered and Claire blushed, turning away. “You should just quit so we can get this done faster.”

“Jordan,” Brian said coldly, giving him a hard look.

“What?” Jordan shrugged. “She always finishes last. Even this idiot is better,” He added, nodding his head towards Annabel. Anna tried her best to ignore the remark.

“Claire, let’s go. His jerk vibe is beginning to affect me.” Anna grabbed the other girl’s arm, dragging her towards where the group was gathering. Peter had just arrived in his usual sports clothes, a whistle hanging around his neck. Anna couldn’t help but feel like she was back at school every time he blew that stupid thing, but unlike PE, in the Compound, fighting was not only permitted, but required and she didn’t have to hide her powers out of fear that guys in a black van would ambush her in an alley behind the school.

“Look alive, people!” Peter shouted as his eyes moved over the crowd gathering around him, his face overflowing with displeasure. Despite being no taller than five-two, he exuded certain authority, so even Jordan fell in line when told. His authority came mainly from the fact that none of the recruits could even get close to beating him in combat and also anyone who ran their mouths too much would win themselves such a grilling exercise that they often ended up in the medical wing.

Peter’s husband had been the one to bring Annabel in as a recruit after she saved his life by chance, so she was especially careful not to get on Peter’s bad side.

“You go in a group of five,” Peter announced, his voice carrying in the lonely garden. “The group with the best time gets to sit out the rest of today’s training. The first person from each group can have tomorrow off. I’ll call the names of the first group.” He looked around. “Jordan, Avery, Carlos, Petra and Claire.”

Jordan cursed.

“Can I take Claire’s place?” Anna asked, raising her hand. “She hasn’t warmed up yet.”

Peter gave her a long glance, his expression as calculating as ever, then just nodded as if he couldn’t care less.

“First five, line up,” he shouted, waving his hand. “The rest of you, warm up and wait for your turn.”

Annabel took a position on the very right, as far away from Jordan as possible, waiting for Peter’s signal. The whistle shattered the morning silence, sending a flock of birds into the sky with outraged cries.

They took off as one, but Jordan’s long legs rewarded him with the lead even before reaching the treeline.

For the purpose of the exercise, the trainers had set a path through the woods that forked, again and again, creating different routes around the mansion that all eventually led back to the endpoint a hundred paces on the left from where they started. The protection field around the Compound played the role of an invisible line that prevented them from wandering off too far away or leaving at their leisure.

Anna had just passed the first tree a few paces ahead of Petra — a tall, sinewy girl with shoulder-long black hair — when the first trap was triggered. A flash of bright light exploded in the middle of the path, the runes of a spell flickering in purple until Carlos smashed through it with an energy blast so strong, the leaves of the nearby trees flew in the air as if scattered by an invisible hurricane.

As he paused to catch his breath, Anna sprinted past him. She didn’t mind doing the rest of the training, but finishing first and not triggering any of the traps would definitely get her a good mark in Peter’s book. And if Larson wasn’t willing to help her out, she hoped consistently proving her capabilities in front of Peter would do the trick.

She kept on running, avoiding the protruding roots and the piles of leaves that most often hid a trap. She didn’t see any of the others in front of her, but she could hear steps trailing not too far behind. Something shiny in the branches of one of the trees caught her attention, and she veered off the path to avoid it. The rustling of fallen leaves and twigs breaking told her her tail was still following her, probably hoping she’d trigger a trap so they could avoid it.

A subtle change in temperature made her curse under her breath, but it was too late to go back. The shiny thing she saw was probably a distraction to make them try to avoid it — Peter’s plan seemed to count on them trying to be too smart for their own good.

Anna spotted the red rune that was eagerly pulsating at the base of a thin, withered tree trunk and threw herself to the side, crawling behind another tree, drawing a protection rune in the air. Pouring her energy into it, she expanded the ward to cover her from all sides just as a blaze of fire burst around her, spreading in all directions. A painful cry echoed through the trees, but she didn’t see anybody.

As the flames died down, she jumped to her feet, letting the ward disintegrate, and took off again. She pushed herself to move faster, eyes darting in all directions for any signs of Peter’s craftiness.

When she reached the middle of the trace, she had to slow down again. Avery was hanging upside down by the side of the main path, his face turning purple. He didn’t move, didn’t even shout, which could only mean that the surrounding air had probably changed its state. His eyes followed Annabel as she carefully chose a path around him. She found the rune in the dirt by the road, formed with stones and half-covered in leaves. Even the air around it was heavy, but at least she could still move.

She kicked one of the stones aside, and the tension broke. A choked sound came from where she had left Avery, followed by a moan. She turned to look at him and found him sitting with his head between his legs, taking big breaths.

A loud explosion came from ahead and she pushed Avery out of her mind, returning to the path. Her feet were getting tired and her chest hurt, but she kept going. As she reached the last hundred and fifty feet, she hesitated - it was just a straight line to the finish. She could even see the other recruits waiting for them to appear and it looked like nobody had finished the track yet. There was no way Peter would have left this place without a crafty little snare hidden somewhere.

The sound of hurried steps made her turn just as Jordan appeared from one of the other paths, his clothes covered in dust. Their eyes met for a moment and Anna could tell what he was thinking from the way his jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed.

Trap or not, she couldn’t just sit and do nothing.

They started running at the same time, and Anna put all she had left into that last sprint. Just as Jordan started gaining on her, the unmistakable click of a trap resounded through the air. In the next moment, they both flew back, landing in the dirt and rolling to a stop. Grunting, Annabel forced herself to sit.

Jordan was already up, trying to smash through the semi-transparent box that flickered around them. The other recruits at the end of the line were chattering excitedly, pointing and laughing.

Anna got to her feet, stepping towards the ward and placing her hand on it. Peter’s handiwork burned against her palm, taunting her. Getting through that thing would be hard, even if she cooperated with Jordan, which was as likely as cuddling with him.

Another wave of excitement washed through the onlookers, and she looked around. Avery was running towards them, eyes wide with surprise.

“Hey!” she shouted, hitting the wall to catch his attention. “Disrupt the rune!” She pointed to the tree on her right, and for a moment, Avery stared at it. He circled the box they were locked in, going towards the tree she had pointed at and then moving past it. He looked over his shoulder and grinned, throwing his hands in the air.

“Fucking bastard!” she muttered through gritted teeth. She was definitely going to return the favor next time. Her eyes switched to Jordan, who was still stubbornly working on penetrating the energy wall. “That’s pointless! You can’t break it alone. We should…”

“Shut up,” Jordan snapped, glaring at her. “It’s your fault we got locked up in here! How stupid can you be to trigger a trap like this?”

This did it. First Avery, now Jordan. How hard was it to understand that it was a team exercise despite the reward for the first place? If one of them didn’t finish, their time would be bad.

Her eyes switched from Jordan to the tree behind him, where a rune identical to the one on her side flickered. Anger licked the walls of her composure.

“Hey, asshole!” Annabel shouted. “Are you sure I am the one who triggered it?” She pointed to the tree, and he glanced at it for a second. When he turned back towards her, the look in his eyes was as cold as ice. “No matter who did it, we need to break free. So…”

“Shut your mouth or I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

“What’s your problem? I am trying to think of a solution here!” Annabel yelled.

Her heart was threatening to jump out of her chest from all that anger and excitement. Even after that much running, she felt full of energy and a part of her wanted to test her current level against him. But that was not the time or the place. She wanted to get out of there and since they couldn’t do it from within she had to make them do it from outside.

“For fuck’s sake, shut up!”

Anna’s last sense of cautiousness picked up its bags and left.

“Or what? You couldn’t even become a member all this time, what can you do to me?”

Jordan froze as if caught by another trap. Then he turned, painfully slowly, towards her. His expression was unnervingly calm, but the crazy look in his eyes told her she had achieved her goal. Now all she had to do was keep him at bay and hope Peter would intervene before either of them got really hurt. While sparring between recruits was allowed, good old-fashioned murder was not.

Annabel drew a protection rune before he even made a step in her direction, putting as much energy as she could spare into it. The air around her shimmered as if a million tiny stars stood up to protect her.

“Coward!” Jordan snarled. “You talk big and then hide behind a wall, huh? No matter, it’s not like there is anywhere for you to escape once I tear it down.”

He raised his hands by his sides and through the haze of her ward, Anna watched him get enveloped in a pale glow. As the first blast shook her ward, she looked to where the other recruits were standing, searching for Peter’s face. He stood in the front, stiff and uncomfortable, but he didn’t make a move to stop them.

Another blast crashed into her ward, shaking it again. Anna pulled more energy to fortify it, glancing at Peter again while trying to keep an eye on Jordan. He had moved in front of her, as close as her protective dome allowed him. His murderous intent was easy to sense, even through five feet of solid air.

“He is not coming to save you this time,” Jordan laughed after following her gaze. “We haven’t finished the track, so he won’t interfere.” Jordan raised his fist in the air, his energy dancing impatiently around it, then punched the wall. Part of the outermost layer chipped and fell to the ground, turning into a cloud of sparkly dust before disappearing completely. “I’ll give you a chance. Get on your knees and beg for mercy.”

Annabel glared at him. She had no idea why Peter was not interfering, but she had no intention of kneeling or begging.

She studied Jordan’s face for a moment, looking for any sign of struggle. She couldn’t tell how much energy he had left, but hers was halfway gone. If she kept fortifying her defenses at some point, she’d run out of juice. And if that happened before he did, she’d really be at his mercy. He was twice her size and already had some experience fist fighting. On the other side, the only thing she was good at was dodging, and even that skill needed improving.

She had to push him back and force Peter’s hand.

Jordan punched the ward again, his smile widening. She was out of time.

Anna drew more of her energy, but instead of putting it in the shield, she held onto it, waiting for Jordan to attack again. He needed a few seconds to gather strength before every hit, so that was her window.

His fist connected with the ward again, creating even more cracks. A few more of those and there would be nothing between them. Annabel dropped the shield, raising both her hands and thrusting them towards him. He blinked in surprise, but all he had time to do was brace for impact.

He landed on his back, quickly getting to his feet with a growl. Annabel was already drawing a rune, preparing to seal him in his own little box within Peter’s trap. She hurled the spell towards Jordan, but he raised his own shield, blocking it. Sweat was running down his brow as he fought against it, but eventually, he overcame it.

Anna cursed as she saw him running towards her. His fist was flying even before he reached her, but she ducked under it, stepping back. She dodged a few more times, which only seemed to fuel his anger until finally, she wasn’t fast enough.

He backhanded her almost on second thought, and she tumbled to the ground, covering her head and curling up to protect her vital parts. He didn’t kick her though, instead, he forced her feet down, straddling her waist. As she fought with the shock and confusion, his hands wrapped around her throat, squeezing it viciously.

Annabel dug her nails into his palms, trashing with all her might to break free from under his weight. He held her firmly, eyes watching her with icy anger. Her vision blurred and her head became lighter, her entire body growing heavier and harder to control.

Where was Peter? Why wasn’t he interfering? Was she really going to die like this, choked to death by one of her comrades? What a joke!

She could barely feel his fingers anymore. She wasn’t even sure if he was still choking her. Everything slowly turned black.

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