Sandstorm, Part 1 (The Dragonblessed)

The bus smelled like dust and fear sweat, and Diana could only hear some mumbles in the seats around her. She had read the single set of papers on her lap a dozen times in the long drive, and hadn’t spoken a word to anyone. Next to her, the red-head who had boarded with her had her eyes closed and was enjoying some rest before the big day. Everyone on the bus was nervous and choking on the shared tension. Diana wasn’t afraid of the first day though. She could overhear people around her glancing in her direction, whispering, “That’s the Harbor girl isn’t it”. Before she boarded the bus her oldest brother and her father warned her it would happen. The reputation of her family would travel with her, and despite what every person on that bus thought, it would not make the season of entry Militia training more bearable.

When Diana had suggested trying to get into the Cadets, she secretly hoped they would be kinder. Her father laughed at the idea, but still suggested it. Cadets were a step above the normal Recruits, and any extra accolade she could earn was always encouraged. Any hopes she had of her peers being kinder were dashed though. “You’ll survive Diana,” he said as she prepared to leave, “You’re a Harbor. And Harbors are the best of the best. So go prove it.”

In front of her, a boy about her age shifted in his chair to get a view of her, then he laughed. “Yeah, she’s the Harbor alright. I heard we were going to share a training group with you.”

Diana said nothing but the whispers around her increased as suspicions were confirmed. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply and doing everything to ignore it. The boy snapped again, “See that, she already thinks she’s better than us.” He stared at the Cadet for a moment until he became bored with her lack of reaction, then he sat back in his chair. The jeers didn’t end though, as he instead spoke loudly to the person next to him, “Did you see her though? She’s got the General’s yellow hair but she’s as skinny as some homeless Oasis kid. I bet she can barely lift a sandbag.”

“She is pretty scrawny huh,” his neighbor agreed, peeking through the gap in his seat at Diana.

The Cadet just kept her eyes closed, willing herself to drift off to sleep like the red-head next to her. There was no time though, as the bus made a sudden turn and jolted everyone on board. Her eyes shot open and out the window as they saw the camp they’d be staying at. The camp itself was nothing special, and seemed nicer than her Academy in some ways. The swirling clouds of sand behind it were a terror to witness though, creating a wall into the Wasteland. Diana’s brothers had warned her of the drills that would take them into those dust clouds, and it was one of the only drills she dreaded.

The bus made a jerky stop and before the driver had turned off the engine a man in a gray uniform boarded. He shared a few words with the person sitting at the front, then left with a stack of papers. Shortly after a woman in a similar uniform and orange cape boarded and screamed, “Cadets! Listen carefully because I will not repeat myself! When I am finished talking you are going to exit this bus in a straight line starting from the front left. You will stand on the markers outside that correspond to the number you were given when you boarded and keep your papers on you at all times. Any superior asks you a question you will say ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no ma’am’ and nothing else. Am I understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” the Cadets on the bus yelled back, a few with a quiver in their throat. The woman turned and left and shortly after her the recruits at the front of the bus got up and began to sprint off. Diana stared ahead, prepared to jump out of her seat the moment she had to. When her turn came she was careful not to knock into the man who had called her out before and ran off the bus and to the number that had been carefully painted on the ground. A few other recruits timidly kept their head down and tried to figure out which number was theirs only to be screamed at by one of the uniformed officers circling them. When everyone found their spot, the woman in the orange cape stood in front of them, along with another woman wearing the white and red of the Capitol Guard.

The woman yelled, “You will refer to me as Major Dawkan. I run the show here along with Captain Zalaen. You will refer to all of your superiors here by their title and if you mess it up they will let you know.” Zalaen smirked at this comment, eyeing the rest of the Cadets who stood as straight as they could despite the anxious shaking. “In a few moments, you will be directed to First Hall to get your uniforms. Then you will turn in your papers. Then you will be tell you. Before that though we will be introducing you to some of the drills you will be expected to master in your time here. Captain.”

Dawkan nodded to the orange-caped Captain who took her place, standing firm and lifting her voice as loud as she could, “Drop Cadets!”

“Yes ma’am,” Diana and a few lone voices shouted, the rest already taking a knee.

The Captain screamed suddenly, “I don’t think I heard all of you and anyone I didn’t hear gets an extra cycle! Go!” The Cadets withheld any groans and began to push off the ground. Diana tried to ignore the others around her and focus. Despite her small stature she accomplished the exercise easily and even let herself relax more during. Until she saw two feet stop in front of her, and the Captain yell, “Fourty, stand.”

Diana stopped, hestitating for only a breath before pushing herself gracefully to her feet and standing straight, four fingers touched to her arm in salute. “Yes, ma’am!”

“Name, Cadet.”

“Diana Harbor ma’am.”

Zalaen grinned at the answer, a few Cadets surrounding them slowing their push-ups to listen in on the conversation. “Cadet Harbor, I heard you would be joining us. I hope you don’t think we’re going to give you some cushy vacation here.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it ma’am,” Diana replied, refusing to make eye contact and staring past the Captain.

“Glad to hear,” Captain Zalaen looked to the rest of the group, “Everyone who followed their orders correctly can stand! The rest of you stay until I get bored. If you’re standing, you will go to First Hall and get yourselves situated. Welcome to training.”

Diana swiftly dashed past Zalaen who occupied herself with yelling at another Cadet who tried to sneak away. First Hall filled fast, but fortunately her spot was separated from everyone else. She scooped up a drab gray uniform, then took her papers to the next room, then kept her head down as she traveled to the bunks. A few others who had been pushed back a class were already there, but it was mostly empty at the time. Diana found her bunk where her bag was already laying down. She reached in, starting to pull out a book but then dropped it back in when another group walked past. With no time or space to read she only sat until an alarm sounded, summoning them to Third Hall for an orientation.

The first few weeks at the training camp were as difficult as Diana imagined, but the interactions with colleagues and superiors were far worse. Word spread quickly about Diana’s lineage and many Cadets made it a point to remind her of that. Captain Zalaen and her Lieutenants did not help matters. Diana could feel her lips grow dry from having to bite her tongue around them while they frequently singled her out. Despite this, Diana managed to keep up and outperform in every task given. Even when it came to combat training, the other Cadets had a hard time keeping up. Proving herself capable did not improve things though.

Two weeks in, Diana found her lonely seat in the mess hall. It was bustling as always but she always managed to find the quietest part of the room to eat. She felt her ears burn and looked up to see the Cadet from the bus and a few others glaring at her. She kept her head facing the tray in front of her and took a bit of some bread. Usually she could just daydream through the duller moments of the day but the other Cadets wouldn’t allow it sometimes. The man and his group approached her, crossing the room to do it. She could feel them standing behind her but still said nothing. “Hi Harbor,” the man said, putting a hand on the table in front of her, “Enjoying lunch?”

“Go away,” Diana replied bluntly, still eating the bread in her hand.”

“Not so friendly are you Harbor? I just wanna talk.”

“I don’t,” Diana finished her bread and went to pick up her tray, “Bye.”

The man stood directly behind her, forcing her to sit back down, “Well you’re going to. We’re all sick of you showing the rest of us up. Just because you get this fancy training the rest of us weren’t privileged to have.”

Diana sighed, gripping the tray in her hands tighter and pushing back against the man to force him to move. He budged enough that she could stand and start to leave, “I recommend trying harder then.”

The man furled his brow and grabbed Diana’s arm tight enough she could feel it bruise. “You think you’re so much better than me Harbor?”

Diana pulled at the arm and shot back, “Not hard to be better than you frankly.” This set the Cadet off, and without another word he tried to throw a sloppy swing at Diana’s head. It missed when she ducked, and flew a foot under his leg. It didn’t trip him but he let go of her to regain his balance. When he tried to hit her again, she caught his hand and turned his arm backwards, flipping him onto the hard floor. In the moment, she hadn’t noticed the rest of the room caught between shocked gasps and rowdy hollering. When she looked up she didn’t see the Cadets cheering her on though, but Captain Zalaen standing in the doorway of the mess hall, beckoning Diana to follow her.

Diana cursed under her breath while someone helped her opponent to his feet. Another officer yelled over the crowd while they walked to Zalaen who didn’t speak a word to them. She led them to the building that the entire complex was built around, and then to a back office where Dawkem was sitting. The disappointed look on her face said she knew what they were there. “Harbor! And Jaxei, is it? I want an explanation.”

“She started it! I wasn’t doing anything!” Jaxei cried, pointing to Harbor as he did. Diana withheld an outburst in reply, knowing it wouldn’t help her case. It was the right decision, as Jaxei’s response didn’t impress the Major.

“You telling me you decided to fight someone half your size and still lost Jaxei? How pathetic are you!” Jaxei’s tanned face turned bright red, and he put his head down while Dawkem berated him. “That’s a piss poor story anyway. Harbor might be able to run circles around you but she’s as timid as a desert bunny and I hardly believe she started any kind of fight. Especially with you.”

Jaxei kept his head turned down, twitching his fingers at his side. “I’m sorry, Major Dawkem.”

“You think I care, Cadet!” Dawkem yelled. She picked up a piece of paper and handed it to him, “We’re demoting you two classes. One for the altercation and another for trying to lie about it. Report back here tomorrow for full reassignment.”

The Cadet didn’t argue, nodding solemnly in the face of the Major. She turned to Diana next who had stood still and straight the entire exchange, staring blankly ahead. “Your turn Harbor.”

“I was eating lunch. Jaxei tried to intimidate me, and I attempted to ignore him. When I tried to leave he held my arm and threw a punch. I was defending myself,” Diana explained.

Dawkem smirked, “And why’d he intimidate you Harbor?”

“Frankly, he’s jealous that I’m better than him at everything.”

Behind her, Zalaen made a soft chuckle. Dawkem didn’t correct her, smiling widely herself at the comment. “So I’ve heard. You like to show off, Harbor?”

“Not showing off ma’am. Just being the best of the best.”

“Oh that’s what you think you are,” Dawkem looked to her Captain then back to Diana, “Let’s test that. From now on, since you’re the best of the best, I trust you’ll have no problem continuing to outperform everyone else in every drill we test you with.”

“Of course ma’am,” Diana replied confidently.

“And if you ever come in second place, then I leave it up to Captain Zalaen to come up with a suitable consequence.” Diana bit the inside her lower lip to keep the surprised reaction from escaping her mouth. “Deities help you if you come in third. Shouldn’t be a problem for you should it, best of the best Harbor?”

Diana clenched her teeth together until she could feel her ears pop before she replied, “No problem ma’am.”

“Glad to hear,” Dawkem bared her teeth them waved a hand, “You’re both dismissed.”

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