Nerves coiled in Alex’s stomach like eels. Palms clammy, she took the stylus and signed the tablet. No flourish. No smile. Just sign the name and enter the building, that’s all. The thought did little to calm her nerves.
‘Welcome, Tabitha Hart. Good luck.’ The Corps officer gave Alex a bland smile, gestured over his shoulder to the great door. No recognition showed in his dark eyes. ‘Through the entrance hall and the door on your left. You’ll be joining the final group of the day.’ Then he settled his gaze on the next applicant, dismissing Alex.
The Wing Elite base in Luxdon rose several stories higher than the surrounding buildings. A tower of stone, tinted glass and cement like a beacon for all who lived in Shoehl. They called them Watch Towers. A halo of trees and a high, iron wall surrounded it, sentries posted at every corner carrying arms. Nobody could break in let alone break out.
So why on earth did Alex mount the front steps under Tabitha Hart’s name? She could’ve slipped away and boarded the train home. Plenty of people before her had.
Nerves gave way to excitement, as Alex quickly made her way inside. The hard part was over, she just had to ace the three examinations.
Theory. Combat. Dragon.
Several stragglers lingered in the hall. Mouths agape. Eyes wide. Marble paved the entrance hall in polished blues, whites and greens to match the Wing Elite colours. A teardrop chandelier hung above their heads, dragons sweeping over the lapis-lazuli ceiling and down across the cream walls. Pillars marched up to a grand staircase opposite the entrance, carpeted in red. Nondescript doors were tucked in on either side.
Alex slipped past the lingering applicants. Most looked older, but just as nervous. Maybe this was their first try, or maybe it was their second and last hope of entering the Wing Elite Corps. It didn't make her feel any less nervous. Her footsteps echoed in the hall, drawing their eyes. Alex had chosen a vest, leggings and jumper as close to Tabitha’s style as she could. Comfortable and blending into the crowds.
The left door opened into a narrow hallway. Tall and tinted windows brightened the grey walls and navy carpet. A Corps officer stood at the other end. Alex studied the older woman as she kept an even pace, back straight.
A familiar forest-green, militia jacket fell to the woman's calves and was synched in at the waist by a white belt and double-breasted with silver buttons. A black baton hung on her hip. Her golden hair was tamed in a braid draped over her left shoulder, highlighting the disinterest on her oval face. Terra Corps officer. They were a sub-division of the Wing Elite, anything to do with dragons from Breeders to Aviators they dealt with in their Watch Towers scattered across the country. Sometimes they worked with international Towers. But they mostly dealt with homeland issues, National Law Enforcers often at their side.
‘Welcome and good luck.’ The officer nodded curtly at Alex and opened the only door behind her.
Rows of white desks filled the room. Chairs scraping and feet tapping on the carpet, as heads twisted to get a look at the door. Alex kept her head down, making her way to the back. Terra officers stood three to every wall, hands behind their backs and eyes as sharp as a hawk’s. Cheat and you could kiss your chance goodbye.
Alex slipped into a seat. Her fingers touched the table and a screen flickered to life in the desktop, asking for name and signature. A stylus nib-down in the corner glowed blue. She hesitated. Her eyes zeroed in on the hair-dye under her fingernails. Once thick russet-brown hair, now chestnut, concealed her face from the applicants flanking her. Nobody so much as sneezed at her. It couldn’t be this easy, could it? She had time to escape. To get up, slip out of the door feigning illness and then never look back.
Somebody coughed, jarring Alex from her thoughts. Setting her jaw, she scrawled Tabitha Hart’s name and signature across the screen. No turning back now.
Once the final seat had been filled, the door swung shut.
‘Welcome, applicants. I am Captain Marsh.’
Silence filled the room.
Captain Marsh stood at the front, hands clasped behind his back. His deep-set eyes swept over the twenty-something gathered. Clean shaven and devoid of grey in his black hair, he looked younger than Alex’s uncle in the green uniform.
‘You are the third and final group of today, the eleventh group this week. Some of you have been through the process before, others are fresh faces.’ His eyes landed on Alex and she ducked her head. ‘Rules remain the same. Anyone caught cheating will be disqualified and barred from the Wing Elite permanently. You may leave at any time during the examination process, but it will be classed as one of your two attempts. You will start with a three hour theory examination, questions will pop up at random on each table to further counter cheating. You are thirty of three-hundred and thirty already processed. Only one-hundred and eighty will continue on to the West Tantic Academy. Good luck and begin.’
His words still swirled around Alex’s head, as the first question appeared on her desk:
What are the physical differences between the New ZellandAhii Njakauand StraliaIgnis Haelitus?
Alex closed her eyes. Her mind tumbled through Esian Korjima Red facts, the last dragon breed she had researched. She delved further. An imaginary room filled her mind, shelves stacked with books and her uncle’s desk tucked under the window. Hours spent rifling through his books instead of hanging out with neighbourhood kids finally paid off. One title surfaced in her mind: Draconic Encyclopaedia; The Southern Hemisphere.
Shopping lists and homework passed through Alex’s brain like a sieve. But the moment it had dragon in it her mind latched on. Even before she moved into her uncle’s spare room as a kid she’d remember little dragon facts here and there.
Nerves shifted into excitement. Alex’s fingers tingled and an uncontrollable smile brightened her face.
There are none.
The answer sat in the text box a moment. The dietary differences soon followed. Who cared if she looked like a teacher’s pet? Better than an idiot.
After that first question, the remaining answers fell into place. Her honey-brown eyes never strayed from the screen. Several times her hand cramped but she ploughed on. Who knew how many questions she’d miss if she took a break?
But the questions never stopped coming.
Less and less tapping filled the silence. More and more fidgeting did, as other applicants admitted defeat and put their stylus down. Unless they don’t have as many questions to answer. The thought sent a shockwave of fear through Alex, her hand trembling. Maybe they gave less questions based on their qualifications and previous test scores.
‘Time’s up! Stylus down, applicants.’ Captain Marsh spoke up, startling Alex. His hands moved from behind his back, holding a tablet. ‘Those unsuccessful at this stage are as follows. Albert, Coats, Cotton …’ His voice droned on, listing nearly half the applicants in the room.
Alex watched their procession out of the door in a mix of relief and shame. She’d made it to the second round. Combat.
The remaining applicants rose, heading for a door at the opposite side of the room. Captain Marsh led the group down another corridor and into a wood-panelled hall. Green-clad Terra Officers lined the walls, eyes trained on the middle-distance. The applicants’ opponent stood on a training mat in the centre. A muscular officer no taller than Alex with grey eyes and white-blond hair, clad in a pair of loose black trousers and vest.
Alex never anticipated seeing someone she knew.
‘Applicants form two lines of eight,’ Captain Marsh commanded.
A shuffling of feet and mumbled apologies ensued. Alex tried hiding in the second row, keeping her head down. Her heart beat like a galloping racehorse. Of all the Officers it had to be Joseph Lucas. He’d been in her school, three years above her and worked at their Watch Tower branch. Her uncle even wrote a recommendation for Joseph. Last she heard he’d returned to his homeland, Ambergan Island off the western coast, for a post in their Terra branch. What on earth was she supposed to do?
‘You will have a one-on-one session with Officer Lucas to test your combative skills. Hold your own for five minutes, or get Lucas to yield and gain an immediate pass. I suggest the former. If he succeeds in pinning you then you are out. If you yield at any point then you are out. All weapons are barred in this test, should you …’
Alex tuned out the rest of Captain Marsh’s words, as numbing fear took hold. Everyone would notice if she walked out. Dread took a moment to remind her of the prison miles beneath the Watch Tower and her mother’s cell. Maybe they’d build an annex just for her. She clenched her fists against the tremors. But then, Officer Lucas hadn’t called her out yet so maybe he didn’t recognise her?
Fragile hope held Alex in place, as the first applicant stepped forward. A tall man with red hair and a matching beard. He couldn’t be any older than thirty, a tattooed symbols wound around his left arm in greys and blacks. Muscles tensed beneath his t-shirt when he raised his arms. A basic stance Alex remembered from Isaac’s defence lessons.
Officer Lucas circled. His eyes focused, ignorant of those around him. Alex held her breath when he danced forward in a series of sharp jabs. His opponent took the brunt on his forearms, ducking and grunting under the blows.
Does he work in Luxdon now? Alex cast the thought aside. Officers had a jury-like service for the Wing Elite. Rotate the newly minted officers to help in the examination, be it guard duty or fighting.
The redhead brawler struggled on the mat, Officer Lucas’s legs wrapped around his neck. His head turned redder than his hair, as he scrabbled at the officer’s thighs. He punched and snatched at Lucas’s trousers, spittle flying from his mouth. Finally he tapped out.
‘At ease, Officer Lucas,’ Captain Marsh intoned.
The officer released his opponent immediately. Rolling onto his feet, he helped the redhead up and clapped him on his shoulder. ‘Good job, mate,’ Officer Lucas said, before the young man left the mats.
Maybe he’d return next year. Or drafted into the Terra Corps if enough potential was showed during Theory and Combat.
Captain Marsh called the next opponent. A brunette woman shorter than Alex with white, freckled skin. She took a more relaxed stance. Esian or Korian martial arts? Whichever it was made Alex’s hopes plummet.
Officer Lucas could barely land a hit. Even with all his feints and whip-fast kicks, she practically glided out of the way. What Terra Corps lacked in dragons they made up for in combat prowess. Ignatius Corps governed the skies and the Terra governed the earth. Sure every country had its differences but the Wing Elite held themselves separate. A whole society of their own.
A particularly loud thump broke through Alex’s thoughts. The second and a third applicant had been and gone. The fourth pinned on his front, blood dripping from his nose and arm caught in a dislocating hold. Officer Lucas hadn’t even broken a sweat.
Captain Marsh called it and one of the wallflower officers helped the applicant off the mats. ‘Tabitha Hart, take position.’
Alex’s stomach dropped out of her arse.
Two applicants in front of her stepped aside, letting her through. Somehow she managed to put one foot in front of the other. Her blue trainers squeaked on the vinyl mats and her cheeks burned.
‘You may begin.’
Alex’s head snapped up, just as Officer Lucas plunged. Acting more on instinct than thought, she sidestepped the punch and stumbled back several steps. So her uncle’s weekend lessons lingered in muscle memory. Sweat and the faint taint of blood filled her nose. Nothing in the older man’s face showed recognition.
Nor did the fists flying at her.
Officer Lucas feinted left and darted right.
His right-hook cracked against Alex’s side, winding her. Three more jabs landed on her stomach and then he danced away and winked.
Alex gritted her teeth and adjusted her stance. Oh he remembered her all right. No time for relief, she ducked under his left-hook and caught his opposite knee in her palms, pushing it away.
Ducking and weaving, Alex deflected his attacks as best she could. She witnessed enough of his earlier victories to avoid his hands. Fists she could handle. Equal in height but thinner, she used speed to her advantage. It didn’t stop them all. A jab in the kidney. An elbow against her back.
She stumbled after a knee and three-jab combo to her chest, nearly falling. No. She didn’t have to win, just last without giving up. Teeth clenched, she tightened her stance and peered between her forearms.
Officer Lucas noticed her determination and lunged.
Defend. Defend. Defend, circled around Alex’s head as the five minutes crawled by. Twice she nearly fell prey to his grip, wrenching her hair out of his hands a few strands lighter. When it felt like every part of her had a bruise forming time called mercy on her.
‘At ease,’ Captain Marsh ordered. ‘Officer Talbert will show you to the final examination, Tabitha Hart.’
Alex dropped her arms, gasping for breath. She met Officer Lucas’ gaze and faltered. What could she say? Thanks for not ratting me out, see you around! As if that wouldn’t land her in deeper trouble.
‘Good luck,’ Officer Lucas said, devoid of any familiarity.
Stumbling off the mat, Alex followed the stout Officer Talbert through yet another door. Sweat trickled down her back, soaking through her vest as they walked. Several minutes passed in silence, Alex’s breathing returning to normal, but her limbs throbbed at every step. After the fourth turn, she lost her bearings. She’d never been escorted this far in on her bi-monthly visits. Luxdon’s Watch Tower was a certifiable maze.
Finally they reached the end of a corridor and stepped into the waiting elevator. Officer Talbert thumbed a button, turning to Alex. Her eyes were surprisingly soft, a green that matched her uniform.
‘I can’t tell you much about this part of the test,’ Officer Talbert apologised. ‘I’ll be observing with some fellow officers, but nobody else is allowed in the room with you. Just remember to stay calm and don’t forget to breathe.’
The elevator dinged before Alex could ask any questions. Drawing in a deep breath, she stared at the metal doors sliding open.
A stone hallway greeted them. Lamps hung from the ceiling, candles flickering behind the glass throwing shadows across the roughly hewn walls. A faint scent lingered in the air, musky like uncooked meat and something else.
‘There’s no electricity in this sector, we try to keep it as natural and technology-free as possible,’ Officer Talbert explained, as she led the way down the hall. ‘The inhabitants aren’t fond of it.’
Nerves bubbled in Alex’s stomach, steadily rising into her chest. She tried taking deep, even breaths. Just one final test and then…what? Fear struck her heart like a bolt of lightning. She hadn’t considered getting this far.
Oblivious to Alex’s turmoil, Officer Talbert stopped outside a reinforced, oak door. She settled a hand on the latch, offering a smile. ‘Breathe and enter when you’re ready. There’s no time limit on this one.’ Then with a nod, she disappeared through a door further along the hall.
Alex released a shuddering breath. If she passed this test they couldn’t turn her away. The Corps needed more Aviators. But nobody would blame you if you left. The errant thought whispered from the darker part of her mind. It drew her eyes from the door to the elevator. Five minutes and she’d be gone. Hundreds must balk at this point.
But Alex wasn’t one of the hundreds.
She was through the door and closing it behind her before she could think. Every heartbeat made her chest flinch and fingers quiver. She slowly turned around.
Luminous green eyes stared back.
A droning hum filled the cave. Curious, expectant.
Breath whooshed out of Alex’s lungs. Her eyes followed the angular head as it rose from the ground. Scales rustled across the stone floor, muscles rippling and uncoiling. The sinuous neck unfurled and rose high above Alex’s head, shoulders blocking her sight of the tunnel behind it. A tail flicked the air, a gunmetal grey that flashed blue in the lamplight. Ivory claws clicked and scraped. Wings twitched, joints popping and laid to rest against broad flanks.
‘Hello, human.’ The words whispered in Alex’s ears like a bird’s fluttering wings.
‘Hey,’ Alex breathed, taking an unconscious step forward.
The dragon’s head dipped, their hooked snout stilling a foot from Alex’s head. ‘Your kin, I remember. They too understood. Not many listen to dragon.’
Who did the dragon mean? Alex recalled Officer Talbert’s words. They’re listening to every word we say, the thought stopped her response. She’d gotten this far, any slipups and they’d have her.
‘Speak, little one.’ The dragon angled their head until their eye nearly touched Alex’s nose. She could see her reflection in the slit-pupil’s depths.
Reality slipped away the longer Alex stared. Tension sloughed off her shoulders, her mind fogging and drifting. She opened her mouth as the dragon did, breathing in the scent of sulphur and carrion. Her heart boomed in her ears.
‘Who sired you, little one?’
‘Hands up – step away from the dragon!’
Reality snapped back into focus. Gasping, Alex whirled around, facing a line of guns. Barrels aimed at her. Her hands shot up immediately.
‘Step away from the dragon –NOW!’ Warmth had slipped out of Officer Talbert’s gaze, as unforgiving as the bullets in her pistol.
The dragon growled, angling their head around Alex. Lips pulled back over jagged teeth, eyes trained on the Terra officers.
‘I-I haven’t done anything wrong,’ Alex stuttered, deciding against moving. A glimpse of those teeth were enough to cement her feet in place.
‘Tabitha Hart is currently out of the country,’ Officer Talbert revealed. ‘I suggest you explain who you are and move away from the dragon.’
‘I am Tabitha Hart,’ Alex tried.
‘No. You’re not,’ countered the Terra officer. ‘Switching academic records was a risky move, kid. Now answer me.’
‘Alex.’ The admission left Alex on a sigh, as she slowly inched away from the dragon. ‘My name is Alexandra Reyes.’
‘Your real name – I will not hesitate to subdue you!’ The Terra officer retorted, clicking off the safety latch and levelling the pistol at Alex’s forehead.
‘Why would I lie when you’re pointing a gun at my face?’ Alex cried. She resisted moving any further, aware of the dragon’s agitated rumbling. ‘My name is Alexandra Reyes, I’m Captain Isaac Reyes’ niece.’
Alex realised her mistake a split second later.
A cacophony of gun-safety latches clicking and baton’s buzzing filled the room. Alex eyed the dozen or so officers standing behind Talbert. Her hands knotted in her hair, heart pounding.
Officer Talbert reached for the coms-unit in her ear. ‘Captain Marsh, we have a Code Amber. I repeat a Code Amber. Rebel Leader’s kid has breached our walls.’