I can hear the roars from my open bedroom window, though the arena is way off. The dragons screech and cry, their feet pounding a furious rhythm into the dirt, and my stomach knots. Luca’s voice tears my attention from my fate.
“Rin, let’s go!”
I’m always late. Luca is never late. Sometimes having a punctual best friend is beneficial. Today is not one of those days. It’s Casting Day. We’ve been training for years for this day, but I kind of feel like I’m going to pass out.
I struggle to buckle the straps of a wrist guard with shaking hands. My mother’s hands cover mine. She takes the guard from me, and puts it on with deft movements, her calloused fingers brushing against my arm.
She gives me a onceover, and I feel heavy and hot in all the leather and metal of fighting gear.
The cast isn’t a fight necessarily, but should be if we want to be alive tonight.
“Be fast,” she whispers as she holds me close for a moment. “Ride hard.”
“I will,” I say, knowing this could be the last time I speak to her.
“Rin!” Luca calls from the doorway for our tiny house. I’m seventy five percent sure he is bouncing on the balls of his feet. He’s the type to be excited-scared, whereas I’m more of a paralyzed-scared. That won’t help me Cast in less than twenty minutes.
“I’m coming!” My voice echoes down the little hall, and my mother is pushing me towards the door, her small hands on my shoulders.
I underestimated my percent of Bouncing-Luca. Should have said one hundred. I’m almost afraid he’s going to launch himself into orbit with only nervous energy as fuel.
We leave my house behind, searching for thin shade to walk to the arena in. Most of our classmates are late too, and we join the throng. Everyone looks the same: nervous and hot. Sweat drips down the back of my mail. It’s the lightest chain my mother could afford, but it’s still heavy enough to feel like lead. Also, if someone could invent breathable leather, I would propose.
Luca’s blond curls are stuck to his head with sweat, and I can practically see the heat waves coming off his chestplate. But it doesn’t matter; we’ll be there soon.
I look around at the other eleven fresh eighteen year old about to become official adults today. Casting Day. The day we choose our dragons, or they choose us. It’s a dance of death and life, future and present rolled into five minutes of hearts pounding and wing sinew stretching and the scream and fight of life and death.
We love the dragons, and hate them. They best of us will ride, like my mother and father do. The rest will die or return home to face expulsion from the village. Today we sink or swim. It’s the way of the clifftowns of Verena. We must tame dragons if we want to live beside them.
Twelve pairs of feet plant at the arena’s gate, and nobody breathes.
“Nervous?” Luca whispers. I’ve never seen him shake. “Yes,” twelve voices say. We laugh at each other and wait.
Town officials unlock the gates. We don’t move. We know to wait for the clang and crash of the arena’s dragon holding. Twelve of them, one for each of us.
My body goes cold as the air fills with the sound of those clangs of crashes and the sharp, keening cries of dragons. I feel like I should be holding an axe or sword, but that’s not the way of the Cast. We go in weaponless, our hands our only weapons. We can’t harm them, but they can certainly harm us.
The gates swing open, and we run through them. Adrenalin singes through me, and I give Luca a parting glance, our feet pounding away from each other.
Good luck, I wish I could say.
It’s chaos. I need to choose. There’s fight and fire all around me, but I just need one dragon.
They’re huge, but I was expecting that. I didn’t expect the grace of them. Cast dragons are younger, but no less graceful than my parents’ mounts. They glint sapphire, emerald, pearl, and ruby in the sunlight. Gorgeous and terrifying. I’m mesmerized by they wave they move, all sinew and muscle, but fluid. I know that if I wait too long, I’ll get stuck. There’s always a fear that the mounts will take flight before we Cast them. We have to be quick.
But I’m not the only one hesitating. Rena, a girl no bigger around than a broom handle is holding back. I can hear her whimper even over the sounds of the Cast. A few others seem to have lost the ability to move. They’ll pay for that. I push into the throng.
I spy Luca weaving around and around the emerald monster, determined and surefooted. The dragon matches him move for move, but I know he’ll break free. I run on.
I dodge Rafe as his chosen mount charges him, and try to muffle the sounds of bones cracking under dragon talons. I give two other Casters a wide berth, and try to get my bearings.
And then I see her.
A topaz female with wings spread wide, shining gold all over, with eyes dark as pitch. I meet her eyes, and know I see my Cast looking back at me. For a brief moment, I wonder why they’d put a topaz in the cast, rare as they are. I rush her, but she doesn’t balk. And why should she?
We size each other up. In one swift movement I run at her chest. Her long neck snakes out, but I’m too close to her center of gravity—she can’t reach me. Teeth snap just above my head. She opens her wings again, and hot air buffets me. If she lifts off, I’m done. Her front feet leave the ground in a rear, and I just manage to grab one of her neck spines before she gets too far.
I hang off her neck as she rises; my feet dangle in free air. I swing myself up into the crook just behind her shoulders. Her head whips around to bite at me, but I kick her face away. She shakes her head, steam streaming from her nostrils. I have about five point two seconds before she sets me on fire.
I won’t need five point two seconds. I place my palm on top of the spike I grabbed, and pull my hand down over it. Her spine slices through the flesh of my hand, and blood drips onto her golden scales. I make a perfect crimson handprint on each of her shoulders, another on her back, and one on as far up on her neck as I can reach.
For an instant she fights the pull of my blood, but it as it seeps through her scales, her onyx eyes dilate. In seconds she calms. I feel my pulse thrums through my body, keyed by adrenalin and pain and thrill. Hers thrums through me, too, the way of the Cast.
I look around. The madness has calmed, either by death or by cast-bond. Luca sits triumphant on the back of his emerald, Rena on a tiny ruby. Others who aren’t so lucky nurse wounds as their escaped mounts fly for the sea. A few are already covered with the white cloths of death.
A grin splits my face. I’m a rider.
I pat her shoulder with a sticky hand and whisper her new name, sealing the cast.
“Pandora,” I say. “You’re mine now.”
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