The wind cuts through our clothes like ice. No matter if you are in the front rows or in the middle or even all the way in the back. The wind will always remind us that we are in the frozen tundra of this wasteland. I look away from the front, turning to my right, Tabatha is staring straight ahead. She watches the captains as they speak.
“Tab,” My whisper sounds just before a heavy rush of wind is rushing in from my left side. Her stringy fox-colored hair whips all around her, even my own black hair is thrown in all sorts of directions before the wind dies down. She looks at me with a raised brow. “Let’s see if we can get somethin’ sweet from the kitchen girlies before class?” She gives me a grin before nodding.
“Announcements are over!” Selective hearing. Tabatha says that I have selective hearing and only listen to the things I want to hear. “Get back to the school grounds and go to your classes!” I can’t help but focus a glare on the headmistress, all the captains have come with their Lieutenants. The season for taking recruits has come, once the first day of winter is celebrated, we’ll be assigned to new posts. Not all of us but those who are nearing or have passed our sixteenth name day.
In this kingdom, every child born gifted is sent to a school to teach them to wield and harness their gift. Our gifts can be anything, from being a charmer to an Elementalist, to knowing when someone is lying, and to being a healer. There are so many gifts, whether useless or useful, we are all sent to the academy, and at the end of our schooling, by the time we’ve reached our sixteenth name day we are given a position.
If your gift is not too useless you will be sent back to your town, the town’s chief or the city chief will put you in a place to work. You are always guaranteed work. The King must know where his gifted are at all times.
If your gift is in between useful and useless you are most often sent to either a noble family or to work at the castle. They say to work with a noble or to work in the castle is among the best and most lucrative positions. I say they are second to worst. You will be kept from your family for the rest of your days.
If you are useful it is because you are powerful. Those who are strong will be sent into king Asthed’s army. They will be trained to kill and we will be a part of what they call his highness’s shadow guard. I’ve heard different stories, some that those taken by the army become spies and assassins sent to infiltrate other kingdoms.
“Gurren D’Rast.” Simon Bayor is looking at me. He is frowning at me and I straighten up because he has used my full name. “You know better than to even utter a single word during assembly.” Simon is tall, he’s the representative of the fourth floor, he keeps an eye on all of us. “If you would have been caught we all would have gotten a lashing.”
Those forest green eyes are glaring down at me, he wasn’t like this just two years ago, but he’s nearing his sixteenth name day and we all know that Simon will be dragged into the king’s army. He is what we call a blocker, a rare type of gifted that is hard to come by, they are capable of blocking other gifted from using their powers. We’ve learned in class that blockers are often used to teach disobedient gifted a lesson. Being blocked from your gift is terrifying, it feels as if a part of you dies, and you are left feeling unbalanced.
Simon’s had to disable my gifts more often than not, each time I’ve been given beatings so bad that I had to stay in bed for nearly a month. “You should especially not be talking about missing class,” It’s just me here, Simon would never dare to tell Tabatha anything, she’s newly brought to the academy and it has already been saying she is going to be sent to the castle, no one knows why but we’ve all been made aware of this. “What do you have to say for yourself, D’Rast?”
I stare into forest green eyes, his skin is tanned, which is rare out here in this frozen tundra. “What is there to say, Lord Bayor?” When he wasn’t the fourth-floor rep he used to tell us little one’s stories of the manor he lived in. He’s the son of one of the noble families. He was kind before, but he cannot afford to be kind, one day he will be snatching up gifted and killing them. “Would you like me to deny what I’ve done?”
Simon’s glare softens. “You are thirteen now, Gurren.” He puts a hand on my shoulder, he sends shivers down my spine with his touch. “You have to set a good example to the younger ones and for newcomers, one day you will go back to the castle, and you will have to serve your father.” My hands curl into fists, the cold wind blows again, nearly all the others have made it inside. “When you serve the King-”
I slap his hand away from my shoulder, glaring up at him. “Why would I look forward to serving him?” I sneer. “I am not acknowledged as his daughter, Lord Bayor, I am his weapon and he will never allow me to rule.” My heartaches. “Besides,” I spit the word out. “What’s so good about serving a man who takes children from their families and sends them to murder their very own kind-” Simon backhands me so hard that I fall to the ground, hands touch the ice and it burns my flesh.
“Never,” He cries out. “Never say that out loud again, Gurren!” I stay on the ground, trying to hold back my tears, but they come down anyway. “You’ll be killed you foolish-” He stops speaking the second I am looking up at him, doing my best to make sure he can see my anger. “Never you mind.” He whispers. “Get to class and tell your teacher you were reprimanded for speaking during assembly and that is why you are late.”
I stay in my place and Bayor smacks me lightly on the back. “Go on now!” He roars above the wind. I run from him, cradling my stinging cheek.
Class is my destroyer. “D’Rast,” I look at my teacher, he’s an ass as Tabatha would say. “You’re late, why is that?”
I bite down on my lower lip, glaring at the ground. “I was reprimanded for speaking during assembly.” The teacher turns to face me completely now, frowning, he understands that whether or not I am lying not much can be done since I am the King’s daughter and a possible heir to the throne. But only the teachers and the commanders know that, and of course Simon Bayor. But he knows because of his father who has been friends with my own since they were children.
“Who reprimanded you, D’Rast.”
The class is silent today, teacher Westfield must be speaking of things that will be in our exams. “You’ll go to extra training with the recent transfers for the rest of the week.” I would rather a lashing than extra training.
“But I am already far more-”
“Discipline is what makes us stronger.” He says. “And you need more of it little girl,” He is sneering the words out. “Gifted with more talent than any other student I’ve seen in my days of teaching and even more gifted than the soldiers I fought alongside when I was nothing but a small and mischievous brat like you. But I was a brat who knew where my loyalties lied and that is with the King and this Kingdom.”
I give him a glare, and he smiles with crooked teeth. “Don’t be angry, child. You should embrace the extra training, you’ll need it when you become a soldier in the shadow guard.” The recent transfers gasp, everyone knows where I will be sent, the girl with not one gift but four. At least everyone assumes I will be placed in the shadow guard, even I hope that I will, just so that I can prove to my father I am deserving of my title and that I am strong. “Take a seat, child.”
I sit beside Tabatha, near the far end of the class, she’s taller than me by a lot. The second I sit a folded paper falls onto my desk, I turn to her with a smile, opening the note and reading it.
You’ve already been assigned to the shadow guard?
Tabatha has pretty noblewoman writing, it makes me scrunch my nose up. I had heard they found her in the slums of the capital, Faiyaz. I open up my desk, pulling out my notebook and pencil, before writing a response back to her.
Since I learnt to walk.
I look up to see where the teacher is, he’s writing on the board, tossing the paper back to her. I find a fresh page in my notebook and begin to copy down what’s on the board. He’s going over the current and previous rulers of the kingdom. I write quickly, not carrying if the work is a mess, even if I know nothing I will be sent to fight. Another paper hits my desk and I open it up.
How is it possible? You haven’t had your name day.
I roll my eyes at her question. You don’t need to have your name day to know your fate, especially if you’re all strength, once they know where you’re headed they give you more lessons catered to where you’ll be sent. But then again, even if my power was useless I’d assume my father would force me into the guard in hopes that I’d either drop dead or so that he wouldn’t have to say that the princess heir is a useless gifted.
Shadow guards teach future shadow guards.
I toss the note back to her before looking back to the board. The notes stop after that last one, and I continue taking down notes I will never take another look at. By the time class is over dread builds up inside of me, I look to Tabatha who doesn’t smile at me, she has this thoughtful look on her face.
“Shall we walk to training together?” I ask and she looks at me, her brown eyes light up and she smiles.
She nods. “It’ll be a treat to have you there,” She puts her hand in her pocket and then is handing me some napkins. “I snatched a slice of coffee cake for you, it may be squished.” I laugh at that, before taking it from her.
“What a great deed, Tabby.” I unfold the napkin and am quick to eat the slice of cake. “I am forever indebted to you.” We walk with no real hurry to the training grounds, she stays quiet as I eat the crumbs in the napkin and lick the sugar from my fingers. Sweets are hard to come by around here.
“Gurren,” I look up to her, raising a brow as if to say yes. “If you’re just a fire gifted then how is it you’re being sent straight to the shadow guard, I’ve seen you use flames but they aren’t particularly powerful when you use them.”
I laugh at Tabatha’s frown, she just frowns more as she looks at me. “Tabby,” I say between laughs, slapping my hand on my knee and then finally I stop. “You’ve noticed the bracelets they make some of us wear right?” She nods. “They are to keep us in line.”
“But they don’t look so out of place.” She takes my right hand and inspects the silver bracelets. “And you’ve got four. I’ve only seen the others wear one or two at the most.”
“They are to restrict my gifts.” I shrug lightly. “I’ve got four because I’m just that strong.” The field is my home, this is the only place they allow me to remove a restraint.
“D’Rast!” I look at a commanding officer, it’s Indio, he is dressed in traditional clothes for the people of the Tundras. A deep blue loincloth reveals the muscles on his legs and the skin of a tundra lion is around his shoulders, the tundra lion’s teeth are hanging on his neck and its paws are his shoes. “You come here and you show these new recruits what it is to really burn bright!”
I glance at Tabatha and I smile. “Seems you’ll get to see why I’m assigned to the shadow guard,” I say it proudly as if I don’t know what they do, as if I wouldn’t mind enslaving my own kind. But I say it proudly because then my father will recognize I am powerful.
I rush to commander Indio and I raise my right wrist. “Always a pleasure when I am allowed to let loose, Commander.” He has a sinister grin on his face that makes me nervous. “Who will I fight today?”
“The king is watching from above, little Gurren.” Fear strikes me and I stand up straighter, holding my chin up, and turning to the watchtower to my left. I am on my knees, hands to the ground and forehead touching the field of gravel. This is an indoor field. I wait for a full three counts before I rise slowly and turn to the Commander. My father demands respect.
“You should have warned me, Indio.” My stomach flips with nerves. “He could have me whipped for not showing my respects-“
“Relax, brat.” He pinches my ear lightly. “You’ll demonstrate a ten-count then spar with me.” I roll my shoulders back, listening to them pop. I stretch my legs and arms, popping the bones in my body and then once again I hold my wrist out. “May I do the dragon count?”
The dragon count is my favorite, it is almost a dance, one where I must use the muscles in my legs and arms to reach as far out as I can. It’s a dance meant for those who are fire gifted, the ones who produce enough flames to destroy lives and not simply bake or make craft weapons.
“You may,” He uses a special key to remove my bracelets. All of those who will be taken into the shadow guard are restrained like this, and the only way to remove one of these is with his key, an oval-shaped rock that must have been charmed by a gifted.
“The King wants to see all of your gifts today brat,” He raises a hand and I can hear when someone comes up behind me. I don’t fight, these are two grown gifted that will destroy me, a collar is clasped onto me. “He wants to see if you can join the shadow guard once we celebrate the start of winter.”
I stare at Indio in pure and utter shock. The celebration is in less than a week, and it is the time of year where everyone goes to their families, or we are allowed to go to the foot of the mountains and pick frozen parthis, a large fruit that can only be picked in the winter. The best ones grow in the beginning days of winter.
I stare in shock as well because the only gift that my father has ever seen from me is my gift with fire. It was the first of my gifts to ascend and it was the reason I was sent here as a babe. They say I burnt down the entirety of my nursery. Simon Bayor told me that he heard that water gifted had to keep the fire from spreading further than the room and that it took me falling asleep for the fire to stop raging.
“Did my teacher know of this?”
Indio smiles. “All the staff and representatives knew of this, they were all informed to keep you out of any serious trouble and to send you here.” Indio clips all my bracelets at his waist, on a shiny thin ring. “I’ll give you what you need to demonstrate your gifts, D’Rast.”
A painful fear rises in me as I glance back to the watchtowers. They’ve lined up all the new recruits of the academy, Tabatha is standing beside the boy who came from the same place as her, they are whispering to each other. I notice now that there are two more boys with them, Tabby knows those boys as well.
Drums sound, the sound is so loud that I flinch, this will be replaced by the sound of my bones breaking if I disappoint the King. I can’t disappoint him. I have to do great because if not I won’t be allowed in the shadow guard. I have to do great or I die. I have to do great or I dishonor myself, and worst of all the king, my father.
I stand on my tiptoes, waiting for the beat to be on the right mark, the second I hear the right mark I flip backward. Fire blasts from the tips of my toes, giving me the momentum I need to land on my hands. I stay like this, waiting for the drums to beat before the next mark.
Fire explodes beneath my hands, shooting me up into the sky in a spiral, the highest I’ve gone is fifteen feet. The second I stop the vortex of flames I am falling to the ground, I curl forward, curling until my feet are down and my head is in the sky. I land right on the mark of the drums.
Two counts have gone.
I can feel myself sweating, I stretch my arms up high, the ends of my shirt rises and exposes my stomach. They’ll see the tattoo of the kingdom, we are all tattooed upon arrival, even if you are just a baby. I am waiting again, my eyes find Tabatha who is wide-eyed.
I wait for the mark, my eyes don’t leave hers, the second the mark hits I mark sure to cartwheel. The flames explode from me, it is as if my gift has been aching to release. I stop on the second cartwheel. Feet pointed upward.
Another two counts.
Slowly I lower myself to the ground, my muscles ache from the movement. I feel as if I’ve stretched bones that have been kept unmoving for so long. The mark hits and I raise my right foot, as high as I can, another cartwheel but this time my hands don’t touch the floor. The fire gives me momentum.
I am breathing heavily as I stand on my feet, the heat is building inside of me, I can feel it in my lungs and boiling my blood. I look at the new recruits, the fire must be burning so bright that it is making them sweat, they have even stepped back from the heat.
I can’t help the smile that rushes to my face. The mark is hit. I raise my hands, stretching as if I could touch the sun. Another mark hits, the fire burns from my fingertips, it rises high. Another mark hits. I tilt my head upwards, watching my flames burn above me. Another mark hits, I lower my left hand. Another mark hits.
Blue flames burn and lightning cracks right from my fingertips, sparking so brightly and brilliantly. The loud crack from the lightning signals the stop of the drums. I can feel my body buzzing from the force I used, my gift with fire is my greatest, it is my prettiest. It shifts from one element to another but that causes my muscles to vibrate and my body to ache terribly for days because I am not gifted with lightning.
Indio assured me that if I train more and continue to practice I’ll eventually grow accustomed to using lightning, he says I can work towards a fifth gift, he says that usually it’d be impossible but he claims that I am a once-in a lifetime oddity in this world.
“You see how brilliantly she burns, your highness?” Indio turns to the watchtower, he sounds so pleased, so proud. “Wait till you see what else your soldier can do!” I am the King’s soldier. This gift I hold dear to my heart belongs to him. He wants to see me use it to its full potential because I must be useful to him.
I can hear water rushing towards me, it’s being poured from above by others gifted like me, but they pour what could be gallons.
My hands raise and the water that threatened to drown me stops. My legs shake at the pressure. I have to force the water to become mine and not the property of the other gifted. I force the water towards me, scooping it into one long tentacle before twirling it upward into a spiral. Water is easier to manipulate when it is frozen, especially if your movements are too stiff, water is an element that needs to flow. So I swirl it above me, forcing the liquid to become a solid, ice in the air and I break it apart. Sending snow throughout the area and watching it fall around us.
“If we were outside, she’d be able to call a storm right to us, your majesty.” Indio doesn’t lie, I’ve done it before, one time when both he and Commander Briggs wanted to see just how much I could do with my gift for water. “We dare not have her try that here.”
Indio turns to me, a wicked smile on his face. “Keep going, D’Rast,” He says. “Make me proud.” Indio rushes forward, and I rush back in fear, he’s got the same gift. Indio does not call this a shifters gift, because we aren’t capable of changing our entire forms, but claws rise from the space between our knuckles.
Long ago Indio told me there are things called wolverines on the frozen mountains just towards the wastelands of the tundra. He says our claws are like theirs, while he sprouts three from his fists I in turn only have two that protrude from my fists. He tears into my flesh, slamming his claws into my shoulders and tearing them out, I can’t help but cry out.
I put my hands around his wrist, keeping him there as best as I can with my small frame, I have to force my right foot to shoot up. A single claw is coming forward but he stops my foot from stabbing into his skull just in time. He tosses me away from him. I am rolling across the floor, breathing heavily, my body trembles as I force myself to stand on two feet.
“Commander Quin!” Indio calls for the commander I fear the most in this world. He’s practically an immortal being with his gift, one who won’t die if I stab my claws into his head or his heart, the only way to kill one gifted with immortality is by tearing their heads from their bodies and burning them. “You take over.” I don’t have the strength to kill a man like this but it triggers my need to survive.
I curl my hands into fists tightly, I step back. The commander lunges, he’s so quick that I have to produce flames on my entire body to keep him from getting close. My heart is beating ferociously, the second he steps back the flames die and I am shooting myself forward, blasting flames from my feet to gather enough momentum to surprise him.
Claws slam into his chest, I pull them out, moving quickly to stab him all over but his fist is coming down. An unnatural strength comes with the gift of immortality, one that has my jaw snapping, the sound of it breaking is so loud that the new recruits gasp.
I am on the ground, crying out so loud and full of pain, hands go up to cradle my jaw but the commander comes. He’s kicking me so hard that my body is flying, I am rolling across the ground and my body doesn’t stop until I’m slamming against the bottom of the watchtower. I am looking up, through hazy eyes, I can see people looking down. My blood is seeping into my mouth, I cough, trying to breathe but that cough sends a wave of pain and shock through my body. Everything must be broken.
I have to be great. My claws are hiding inside my flesh, it takes being close to death for me to use my last gift, Commander Indio and Quin know this too. To call upon death I must be experiencing it myself. This is the only gift that I am incapable of using against people unless I am in peril.
“Are you ready now, D’Rast?” I can hear Quinn, I am crying out loud, gagging and gasping for air that won’t reach my lungs. There is a ringing in my right ear, and from my left ear, I can hear the commander approaching. The sound of his boots crunching the gravel. Indio chose Quin to fight because my gift won’t kill him.
“Give me your hand D’Rast.” I can see him above me, my body is shaking, and tears stream down my face. I can taste my blood in my throat. He holds his hand out, and I try to focus on my hand but all I feel is the pain, he waits until I can get my hand up. The commander watches me as I raise my hand, he watches as my fingertips barely touch his skin, and he is down on the ground.
His veins become visible, they grow a dark purple and black color, his strength, and his energy is being sucked into my body. Slowly broken bones are being snapped back together, I watch as his body breaks and mine is being put back together. My vision is no longer blurry and my pain is gone, I feel alive before I am pulling my hand away from the Commanders.
He’s on the ground and I am on my feet again, taking a shaky breath as I look to Indio who has a maddening grin on his face. He must be twisted with pure and utter pride. He’s the one who has trained me and discovered how to use my gifts, he knows my limits and he knows my weaknesses, Indio knows how to trigger my gifts and to stop them.
“You see that my king?” He is looking up at the watchtower, even with the healing of my body it still aches as I try to walk forward, I’m shaking from the shock of it all. “I have made her into a true soldier, one that will not be stopped if she is dying, one who will feed off of others. You put someone like Quin at her side who won’t die from her touch and she’ll have an unlimited source of power at her fingertips to protect this kingdom.”
I have to stay on my feet, I’m watching Indio, trying my best not to fall over. He won’t tell the king that I am always exhausted after sucking up to someone’s energy. He’s working on that too, at first I would stay unconscious, slowly I became able to stay awake, then I was able to stay on my feet, and now I can walk for a bit once I’ve taken someone’s energy from them.
“If we give the girl the chance to mature she’ll be unstoppable.” He turns to me. “She’s still just a girl but if Quin weren’t an immortal or if she were an adult then she would have been able to take him down.”
Indio stays silent now, all I can hear is my heavy breathing, my body still shakes. I try to find eyes, familiar ones, and the ones I find are that of Simon Bayor. He stands just in front of Tabatha and her people. He has a pained look on his face and I try to give a smile but my lips won’t move.
“Indio,” I whisper, my voice is so small I fear he can’t hear me, I know he can. “I can’t stand much longer,” I whisper. I understand we cannot disappoint my father, especially not at this moment. “It hurts.” Moments like these I feel like my age, not as if I am an adult who is bound to the kingdom, I feel as if I could cry and beg for my mother.
My mother. I turn to the watchtower, wishing I had better eyes to see if she is beside my father, watching me… missing me the way I miss her. But how can I miss a woman who I don’t know. The King steps forward, I can see him at the edge of the rail, “You’ve done an excellent job training that monster, Commander Indio.” He’s walking away, and the light that was shining up in the watchtower is gone, I turn slowly to Indio and I try to give him a smile.
“You did good, Gurren,” I can hear his voice and the sound of that praise is all I needed to hear before I am falling to the ground in exhaustion.
“Gurren!” They are calling for me but the aching in my muscles from forced renewal and from forcing myself away from death keeps me from uttering even a single word. Simon is above me, his eyes are wide and I give him a small smile. “Are you okay?” He is reaching for me but commander Indio is grabbing me before him, he puts me back onto my feet and he makes me face him.
“You will overcome the pain, girl.” He sneers the words out, eyes wide with desperation, he understands what will happen if I am not useful. “Let’s face the new recruits,” He starts walking, I glance at Simon, offering a shaky smile before I follow the Commander towards the new recruits.
“I hope you’ll all remember the miracle of Gurren today,” My eyes are on Tabby who is staring at me with a shock that makes me want to give a cocky grin but I don’t have the energy to do that. “D’Rast,” I look to the commander.
“Commander?” I ask.
“Hold your hand out, it’s time we put these back on,” I do as I am told, watching solemnly as he puts back on the bracelets that make me weak. If I had been born with no power would I have lived a simple life as a princess?
“Today you’ve all witnessed the future of our Kingdom,” The commander finally begins speaking once he finished clasping on my final bracelet. “You’ve gotten the first look at a future shadow guard, who will even possibly become the leader of that same very shadow guard, she will win wars and will help conquer neighboring kingdoms. She will lead this nation-”
“You are confident in your student, Commander Indio.” I’ve only ever heard my father’s voice once in my life, it was a long time ago and it was by chance, I heard him giving an order to have someone killed. That’s when the others began telling me of the monster he is, that he is a man willing to burn down villages, cities, and even countries. They tell me the stories of the Ice King who wishes to conquer and destroy, they tell me the stories of the man who pillages villages and cities, gathering gifted to make a vicious army to kill others.
“My King,” Indio is moving down onto his knee and suddenly everyone does and I have to turn around and bend a knee to my father that I have only ever seen in paintings.
“You may all rise.” All I’ve been taught is that if I am disobedient this man will kill me if I do not get stronger. I am his weapon, not his daughter.
“Gurren D’Rast,” He says and I grow stiff with fear. “Did you know that you are named after that demon from the dark lands?” Sweat begins to slide down my body, what is he saying? “Look at me, girl.” My hands shake with fear, but I slowly tilt my head up, looking up at large blue eyes. He holds no smile, his face is all sharp and defined, long dark brown hair stops just above his chest. “You look just like that demon.”
The snarl in his voice makes my stomach sink with fear, slowly my right foot moves back, my body is telling me to run. “You’ve learned well under the commander,” He looks towards Indio. “Indio because of your great work she’ll be returning to the castle, you’ve proven that she is far more than capable of controlling her own powers,” He stops speaking, looking to me, and then back to Indio.
“I’m sure my daughter will be far more useful to me at my side than here,” He turns to commander Quin. “Quin, you and Indio will be in charge of furthering her training once we return to the castle with her.”
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