Jyl Lafli envied the dragons of Paxmer. When a young dragon was ready to leave its creche and be properly trained, the adult dragon responsible for them was allowed, required even, to bath them in searing flame until the last traces of adolescent stupidity were burned away.
“This drill makes no sense,” Eorn Bromli said, dropping the sacks that she was holding out at arm’s length before collapsing to sit on the stone floor of the training room.
Beside her, the other newest candidate for the Queen’s Guard, Undine Kebrom, dropped the sacks he was holding and put his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. He looked over at Eorn and then at Jyl before offering a small, silent shrug.
Neither of them understood the point of the training, which was fine, since Jyl wasn’t primarily focused on teaching them. Instead, she was testing them, like Dae had tested her. The only problem was that neither of the new recruits seemed to be capable of passing the test.
“This next bit will make even less sense then,” Jyl said. “Pick the sacks back up, we’re going to start doing laps with them.”
She lifted her own sandbags and waited for the two Guard candidates to follow suit. Eorn scowled but forced herself to her feet without voicing her displeasure further. She didn’t exactly follow Jyl’s instructions though. Before picking up the sacks, she helped Undine get back on his feet and picked up his sacks for him.
Jyl refrained from commenting on the delay. In stopping to help Undine, Eorn was demonstrating how a member of the Queen’s Guard should think. For his part, Undine didn’t seem overly joyous for the help, but he accepted it with a begrudging smile nonetheless.
Without waiting for the new recruits to declare themselves ready, Jyl took off, setting a pace her trainees could have easily matched at the start of the work out.
The training room was large, but even so it only took two circuits around it before Jyl lapped Undine. Eorn was a few steps ahead of him, urging him on with glances and words of encouragement.
“You look like you’re reaching the end of your endurance,” Jyl said as she jogged easily past Undine.
“He’s fine,” Eorn said. “Just leave him alone.”
“Is that right?” Jyl asked. “Are you fine Kebrom?”
“Yes,” Undine said through gritted teeth. The word wheezed out of him, forcing a path through breathless exhaustion.
“Good, then we should be able to chat,” Jyl said, matching her speed to Undine’s.
“Ok,” Undine said and started walking.
“I said chat, not rest,” Jyl said. “Keep going. We’ve got eighty more laps to do.”
Undine stumbled but caught himself before he could drop.
“Ok.” he said again, cutting off the violent words that had gathered behind Eorn’s teeth.
“What are we doing here?” Jyl asked.
“Wasting time with stupid exercises,” Eorn said.
Jyl smirked and then turned around, running backwards to face Undine as they continued.
“And what do you think the point of this is?” she asked.
“You’re testing us,” Undine said. “You need to weed out the weak.”
“Good,” Jyl said. “Look at what we’re doing, both of you. Tell me what’s wrong with it.”
“You’re torturing us,” Eorn said.
“Am I?” Jyl asked. “You’re holding up.”
Jyl shifted her gaze from Eorn to watch a flicker of fear pass across Undine’s face. She knew the doubt that was eating away at him, and hoped he’d figure out how overcome it and pass her test.
“That’s not fair,” Eorn said. “I’m a stone giant, we don’t get tired.”
Jyl smiled, Eorn had a different set of issues than Undine did, and while correcting some of her misconceptions wasn’t going to be easy, the end result looked like it might be worth it. Burning the stupid out of both of them was still an option that Jyl wished was on the table, but the longer she worked with the two, the more she could glimpse of what Queen Alari saw in them.
“I’m going to remind you of that at lap fifty,” Jyl said. “What else is wrong though?”
“We’re hurting, but it’s doing us no good,” Undine said. “This is too much exertion for a training session.”
“That’s right,” Jyl said. “Even with accelerated healing you’re going to feel this tomorrow morning.”
“So you are torturing us?” Eorn said. “Does the Queen know about this?”
“This isn’t torture,” Jyl said. “It’s training.”
“You just said it was too much exercise for a training session,” Eorn said.
“I did,” Jyl said. “So what does that mean?”
“That you’re an…” Eorn didn’t get to finish her sentence though. Undine interrupted her.
“That this isn’t about training our bodies,” Undine said. “You’re testing us, or training us to think, or both.”
“So what’s the test then?” Jyl asked.
“We need to figure out something,” Undine said. “Something that’s wrong.”
Jyl could see his arms trembling with fatigue. Thinking through that kind of pain was no fun, but after her experiences in Paxmer, Jyl felt like the ability to focus and evaluate things even under the worst of circumstances was an invaluable tool that the Queen’s Guard had to possess.
Undine didn’t have the skill yet, but he was managing to buy time with his rambling thoughts and his words served another purpose; they inspired Eorn.
“Wait,” Eorn said. “There is something wrong here. How in the Nine Hells are you running along with sacks just as big as the ones we’re carrying? And you’re not even breaking a sweat yet.”
Jyl let a wide smile beam out from her face. The wheels were starting to turn in their heads and Jyl was starting to think that maybe these two did have a chance at working out.
Eorn was a stone giant, or mostly so. Her family had mixed heritage between humans and giants. Eorn favored the giant side of her ancestry, with the rock grey skin and close to seven feet of height that came with it. While it wasn’t true that she didn’t get tired, she was blessed with the sort of strength and stamina that was unmatched outside of Pact Spirit bonds.
Undine, by contrast, was human, and almost painfully thin. His whiplike body was quick and nimble and stronger than most gave him credit for being, but in terms of raw physical power he’d never come close to matching Eorn.
Neither of them were running the laps as effortlessly as Jyl though, despite the fact that as an elf, she was the shortest of three by a wide margin, and easily the weakest as well.
“That’s a good question,” Undine said. “Are you carrying feathers there?”
“I’ll trade you,” Jyl said, offering her bags to Undine.
He quickly passed his own to Jyl and took hers quickly, only to frown when he discovered that the bags she’d given him were heavier than the ones he gave away.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “How is this possible?”
“She’s cheating,” a new voice said.
Jyl felt a chill run down her spine as she whipped around to confirm her fears.
In the next door along the training room wall they were running beside, stood a woman who was Jyl’s mirror image.
“That’s the first rule with my sister,” Jaan Lafli said. “She always cheats.”
“Ignore her,” Jyl said, her lips freezing into a hard line as they ran past. Jaan was lounging propped against the side of the doorframe and watched them go by with a sardonic smile on her lips and a fixed gleam in her eye.
“But I’m right!” Jaan said. “Ask her!”
“Who is that woman?” Eorn asked.
“Someone who shouldn’t be here,” Jyl said, as their pace took them away from her sister.
“Are you cheating?” Undine asked.
“No,” Jyl said. “But think of what I told you.”
“You said no magic,” Eorn said. “We had to do this the hard way.”
“No,” Undine said. “She didn’t say no magic, she said no transformation.”
“It’s the same thing,” Eorn said.
Undine picked up her pace and let a weary smile lift his lips.
“No,” he said. “It’s not. Am I right?”
“I don’t know,” Jyl said, pride starting to kindle behind her eyes. “Show me.”
She watched as Undine’s eyes darted left and right, seeking knowledge and looking to his imagination for how to pull off the feat Jyl could see that he was contemplating.
Confusion and planning gave way to resolve and a fierce, joyful focus replaced the fatigue that had weighed his face into a mask of pain a moment before.
There was just the slightest crackle of magic that rippled along Undine’s body as he stood up straight and jogged easily past Jyl and Eorn both.
“What the?” Eorn asked, struggling to process the sudden change in her friend.
“The rules are that we can’t transform,” Undine said. “So just call for a little bit of magic whenever you feel tired.”
“We can do that?” Eorn asked.
“It’s not against the rules,” Jyl said. “Just don’t call so much that you go Berserker on us.”
“So you were cheating!” Eorn said as she called on her Pact Spirit for a burst of magic.
Jyl watched a pair of gauntlets form around Eorn’s wrist and shook her head.
“Cheating is manifesting any armor,” she said. “You’re back to a lap count of one.”
Eorn scowled and released her magic, dispelling the gauntlets.
“How are we supposed to pull off subtle casting while we’re running?” Eorn said.
“I thought stone giants didn’t get tired?” Jyl asked.
Eorn scowled and kept running without reaching for her magic.
They ran another fifty laps, with Jaan watching them the whole time. Jyl was happy that for once her evil twin was willing to stay silent, but with each lap, her dread of talking to Jaan rose. Jaan was their family’s favorite of the twins. Jyl had made the mistake of following her mother’s path and divorcing herself from her family’s politics, where Jyl had been a model grand daughter to their Duke. For Jaan to turn up uninvited meant that the family’s current political crisis was trying to land on Jyl’s shoulders and she wanted no part of that nest of vipers, and most especially no part of her sister.
“Is there another test here?” Undine asked, still keeping pace with Jyl but showing a level of fatigue that had little to do with the demands placed on his body.
“There is,” Jyl said. “But we haven’t reached it yet.”
“You’re not going to wear us out,” Eorn said through gritted teeth. The stone giant was breathing heavily but her shoulders were unbowed. Even without the ability to call on pact magic to refresh her strength, Eorn was keeping up with Jyl and Undine, though the cost of doing so was written on her face in clear lines.
“What happens if one of us doesn’t make it that far?” Undine asked, casting a worried glance at Eorn.
“We have to,” Jyl said. “There’s no option for failure here.”
“And do we have to run the laps?” Undine asked.
“We need travel around this room a hundred times, each of us,” Jyl said. “And the sacks we’re carrying be any closer to the ground than waist height or be left behind at any point.”
“Can we do more than a hundred laps?” Undine asked.
“We can do as many as we need too,” Jyl said.
“Perfect,” Undine said and added, “Eorn, catch me.”
With that, Undine, hopped up onto Eorn’s shoulders. The giant woman stumbled but didn’t fall down as the weight she was carrying tripled.
“What are you doing?” Eorn asked, gasping at the added exertion.
“This,” Undine said and placed his hands on Eorn’s arms. Jyl wanted to jump for joy when she saw a sparkle of magic pass from the human man to the giant woman. In response to the charge, Eorn straightened and breathed her first easy breath in minutes.
“Oh, that’s a lot better,” she said. “Why didn’t you do that sooner?”
“Just thought of it,” Undine said.
“Let’s finish this up then,” Jyl said, mischief lighting up her eyes. A moment later she vanished and was halfway around the training room.
“Oh, it’s on!” Eorn said, and with Undine feeding her magic the race began in earnest.