This is Izzy's introduction short story, called Golden Guardian.
Izzy Gildspine is a member of the Defender Army, hoping to someday earn the title of Golden Guardian. But before she can do that, she must earn her Gem’s specialty magic... and time is running out. So when the Master Guardian himself approaches Izzy and fellow Defender Roscoe Wendigo with a means to activate her Gem, Izzy immediately takes him up on it. But Izzy quickly discovers that forcing a Gem’s activation is no walk in the park - and now her life is at stake, as well as Roscoe’s. Izzy must find the courage and strength to pass this trial and earn her place as a Golden Guardian... before the trial takes her life.
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No one truly knows how difficult the life of a soldier is until they choose to become one. The training, the knowledge, the battles, even the social structure. . . no form of media ever successfully paints that life. It’s impossible to understand until you’re in it.
Many people simply can’t handle it. I can’t say I blame them. I chose this life, and there are still times I want to leave it. The pressure to succeed consistently wages war with the feeling of inadequacy. And it’s very easy to feel inadequate in this job. Especially when expectations are high, and you aren’t meeting them.
Problem was, I wasn’t meeting expectations.
And I had to. I was training to be a Golden Guardian. Third highest ranked soldier in the Defender military. I had to meet expectations. There was no other option. Only I didn’t know how.
The Master Guardian did, however. And he was determined to ensure I met expectations.
Nothing could have prepared me for his plan to make that a reality.
The day he took action started out fairly normal. I had taken up residence at a long gray table in the Defender Academy’s main cafeteria, trying to force down a plate of pasta and fruit. The sun glared at me, burning through the golden-brown quills on my head and heating my fur, reflecting its hateful rays at my white Defender uniform.
White. The color for someone who hasn’t yet gotten their Gem specialty. Someone who hasn’t activated their magic yet.
Someone who isn’t meeting expectations.
As I poked at my lunch, the room filled with other Defender students and soldiers. Many still wore the plain black uniforms of a Defender in training, though most of the rookies were still in boot this time of year. Most others wore colors fitting their Gem’s specialty. Teal accents for the elemental users. Navy blue for shielders. White accents for healers.
I glanced over at the healers. They were mainly support, dropped into packs to bolster shielders, elementals, and cloakers, aka “the real soldiers.” Healers were absolutely necessary to make the Defenders work, but they weren’t well respected. No one really thought of them as real soldiers.
I was glad I wasn’t going to be a healer. I was supposed to be an elemental, according to my family’s long pattern of Gem specialties. I couldn’t be a proper Guardian as a healer.
I chewed my lip, turning back to my food. Well. Perhaps that wasn’t entirely true. My father had been a healer and a Guardian. One of the best around in both categories. But he was a fantastic soldier. Strong in mind and body. Sure, I passed the necessary physical tests to be a soldier, but I was no body builder. I needed an element.
I couldn’t be a healer.
But I was taking too long to get my element. I was the only one in the whole room wearing pure white. It was so hard to ignore the stares the others gave me. Me, a future Golden Guardian, still without power.
I turned, perking my catlike ears up, and caught a glimpse of my adoptive brother and partner, Matt Azure. His white, blue-tipped quills and catlike ears bounced on his head as he crossed the room, and his teal accented Defender uniform was hard to ignore. He lightly tossed a tray full of food on the table and pulled up a chair across from me. He grinned. “Mind if I join you?”
I stared at him. Matt had earned his Gem specialty in high school nearly thirty-five years ago, at an age before most people were even bound to their Gems. One of the few benefits of being Black Bound, though Matt would likely argue that it was the only benefit. Far as we were concerned, being Black Bound only came with ridicule and fear from average Zyearthlings and impossible expectations from Defenders. Black Bound individuals were rare, and the benefits and drawbacks of being one were not well understood.
It did mean we had to learn Gem responsibility early. Most Zyearthlings got their Gems at age twenty. Matt had miraculously bound both of us when he was six and I was four after an event in my childhood I’d rather not explore.
Imagine explaining to a four-year-old how to take care of something as precious as a Gem. The magical object their life was now permanently bound to. The whole reason why I could be fifty-five years old and still look twenty, and why I’d live close to four hundred years.
The exact problem keeping me from meeting expectations.
Matt waved a furry white hand in front of my face. “Yoo-hoo. Zyearth to Izzy. You’re spacing out here.”
I shook my head. “Am I? Sorry.”
“What’s got you so broody?” Matt asked, sneaking a bite of pie off his plate. “That’s not like you.”
I shrugged. “You should know.”
Matt swallowed. “Thinking about your powers again.”
I poked at my pasta, but didn’t say anything.
Matt shifted in his chair, his ears turning a soft pink. I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed or just sorry for me. “You’ll get there, Iz. Just give it time.”
“I’m sick to death of giving it time,” I said, flipping my ears back and crossing my arms. “I’m the only one of my year still wearing white. It’s ridiculous.”
“Well,” Matt said. “Not the only one.” He pointed to the cafeteria’s entrance.
A tall, gray stag with bronze antlers and copper-colored hooves walked into the room and glanced around a moment before heading for the lunch line. Roscoe Wendigo. Just as Matt said, he wore white.
My face grew hot and I turned away, pulling my ears down. “Oh, Draso. He’s not looking at me, is he? Tell me he’s not looking at me.”
Matt grinned and waved at him. I snuck a peek and caught him waving back.
I glared. “You idiot.”
“I think he likes you,” Matt said, leaning his head down.
“Shut up,” I said, though the blush grew from my cheeks to my ears.
“And I mean likes you likes you.”
“Shut up, Matt.”
Matt picked an apple from his tray and bit into it. “I’ll refrain from commenting on my observations about whether or not his feelings are reciprocated.”
“You better or. . . or you’ll regret it,” I snapped at him.
Matt’s grin increased. “Niiiice comeback.”
“Do you have to be such an ass?”
“Ooo, language!” Matt said, waving a finger and tsk, tsk-ing with an exaggerated snobbish look. He lowered his gaze. “Seriously, Iz. Why are you so nervous around him? You’ve known him since high school. We used to hang out all the time.”
“That was. . . before.”
Matt smirked. “Before you realized what a handsome young male he was?”
“Before he became a Captain,” I shot back. “He’s brilliant in everything he does. I’m sure he’ll end up the leader of some top pack once he gets his Gem powers. He’s got clout here.”
“And you’re going to be a Golden Guardian,” Matt replied.
I leaned down, bending one ear back. “Not if my powers never kick in.”
Matt frowned. “Izzy. . .”
“This seat taken?”
I sat straight up and looked to my left.
Roscoe stood there with a tray in his hands, smiling at me. Gosh, that handsome snout. Those big, shining eyes. Those soft, felted ears. That gorgeous voice. . . I clutched my fingers tight against my palm and forced what I hope was a decent smile.
Matt leaned back on his hands. “Not at all! Have a seat, Roscoe.”
I shot Matt a glare.
“Thanks.” He took a seat. I prayed he wouldn’t notice my blushing. “Seems like everyone’s intimidated to sit next to the Golden Guardians, huh?”
“Future Golden Guardians,” I mumbled.
Roscoe shrugged. “All the same to me.” He took a bite of salad. “So, no luck on your powers yet either, huh?”
I frowned. “No. Not for my lack of trying.”
“What power do you want?”
I shook my head. “If only I got to choose.”
“Your family history kind of chose for you already anyway,” Matt said. He turned to Roscoe. “Traditionally Gildspines have been either healers or elementals, and it always skips a generation. Izzy’s up for elemental if history stays true. She even has her dad’s Gem.”
“Nice,” Roscoe said, grinning. “You guys will match well.”
“I dunno,” I said. “Matt’s wind powers allow for so many excellent fart jokes. I doubt mine will do the same.”
Matt rolled his eyes. “Funny.”
Roscoe laughed. “She makes a good point.” He picked a little at his salad. “Though I do wish our powers would come through. Sometimes I feel so useless.”
I frowned. You’re not alone, Roscoe.
“Master Guardian, sir!” someone shouted from the front of the room. “Defenders, attention!”
As one, everyone in the room stood and saluted, a quick sweeping fist across the chest, heels snapped together. We all turned toward the front door.
Master Guardian Lance Tox entered the room. The leader of the Defender military and our country of Zedric. A rare white wolf, sporting ice manipulation and combat skills to match, Lance was probably the greatest Master Guardian ever to walk the halls of the Defender Academy.
For Matt and me, he was part terrifying boss, part doting uncle. We grew up in the Defender Academy, doing pretty much whatever we pleased. Lance had indulged all kinds of behavior that most Defenders probably found scandalous.
Matt secretly told me one time that he thought Lance did that because he wanted us to enjoy our childhoods before we joined the Defenders. The life of a Golden Guardian was extremely difficult.
I think he felt guilty for our parents’ deaths and was trying to make up for them.
All that stopped when we officially entered the Academy though. He was still the doting uncle, but he also made it very clear that he was our boss. Our leader. There was no room for shenanigans anymore.
Lance crossed his arms behind his back and glanced out over the cafeteria through the small glasses resting on his long snout. As he scanned the room, he caught my eye.
I took a deep breath, but said nothing.
“As you were,” Lance said, his voice calming, but commanding. He stepped into the room. Everyone went cautiously back to their previous activities.
And Lance kept his eye on me.
“Oh, hell,” I muttered. “He’s coming this way.”
“Defenders,” Lance said, walking up to our group.
All of us leapt to our feet again in a smart salute and a sharp “Sir!”
Lance nodded. “At ease. Roscoe, Izzy, I was hoping I could have a word with the two of you.”
I exchanged a glance with Roscoe. “Uh, certainly, sir. What about?”
“Let’s take it in my office. If you’ll both follow me.” Lance turned to the door.
Matt perked both ears. “Sir?”
“I’m afraid this is a private matter, Matt,” Lance said. “Give us a moment.”
Matt frowned and glanced at me. “Um. Sure. Yes, sir.”
I offered him a small shrug.
“Thank you for understanding,” Lance said, then led us toward the door. A short walk later and we entered his office.
Small, plush, and old, the office sported comfortable wing-backed chairs, a heavy oak desk and walls lined with bookcases filled to the brim with books, memorabilia, and a handful of small statuary, including a foot-tall figure of our dragon god, Draso. His desk held a wire Gem holder, which he dropped his pure white Gem on, and an assortment of papers and computer tablets. All very neat and tidy. All perfectly organized.
It’s a good thing Lance never saw my room. He’d be scandalized.
Lance took a seat behind the desk as Roscoe and I sat in the dark red chairs.
“I know the two of you are worried that you’re falling behind without having your Gem specialties.”
I took a deep breath.
Lance let a little smile cross his black lips. “How would you like to accelerate your training and get them?”
A shot of adrenaline burst through my spine and made my fur stand on end. I had heard rumors about this before. Purposefully forcing a Gem to activate its powers. I didn’t know much about the idea, but what I did know was. . . dark. It was hard. Grueling. Dangerous. And often those that did it ended up in intense psychological therapy after the fact.
But those were just rumors. Right? Lance wouldn’t actually do that. Not my doting uncle. And how could I pass up the chance to finally get my powers? Even if it was hard, it’d be worth it. I needed them. It was the only way to be a Guardian.
“Um. Yes, sir. Absolutely. I’d love to.”
“As would I,” Roscoe said. “Sir.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Lance said. His smile faded. “This will not be easy. You know this.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“But we’re up for the challenge,” Roscoe said for us both.
“Good,” Lance said. “Meet me on Lower Beach tonight at midnight and we’ll get started.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. Roscoe nodded and the two of us turned back toward the door.
“One more thing, Defenders,” Lance said, and we turned toward him. He lowered his gaze. “Please don’t tell anyone. Consider this top secret, okay? I’ll explain more tonight.”
That was ominous. Was I making the right decision? “Um. Of course. Sir.”
“See you both tonight.”
We left the room and a shiver ran up my spine.
Roscoe rested a hand on my shoulder, doubling the buzzing feeling in my body. As if the ominous adrenaline spike wasn’t bad enough. I looked up at him.
He frowned. “You okay?”
I rubbed my arms. “Nervous.”
He squeezed my shoulder. “Same. But we’ll be doing it together. We’ll be fine. And we’ll finally get our powers tonight.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Hopefully.”
He gave me one more smile, then walked off, leaving me in the long hall. I watched him leave, still feeling slightly hot under my fur.
I tilted my head for one more cautious gaze at the door to Lance’s office.
Lance wouldn’t hurt us. I didn’t care how dangerous things might seem. Lance would never put his people in danger. Especially not his future Golden Guardian.
But the buzzing in my bones wouldn’t stop.
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