October first is always Threshing.
Monday, Wednesday, or Sunday, it doesn’t matter where it falls on any given year. On the first of October, the first-year cadets of the Riders Quadrant enter the bowl-shaped forested valley to the southwest of the citadel and pray they come out alive.
I will not die today.
I didn’t bother eating this morning, and I pity Ridoc, who’s currently heaving up the contents of his stomach against a tree to my right.
A sword is strapped to Rhiannon’s back, the hilt jostling against her spine as she bounces, stretching her arms across her chest one at a time.
“Remember to listen here,” Professor Kaori says from in front of the 147 of us here, tapping his chest. “If a dragon has already selected you, they’ll be calling.” He thumps his chest again. “So pay attention to not just your surroundings but your feelings, and go with them.” He grimaces. “And if your feelings are telling you to go in the other direction…listen to that, too.”
“Which one are you going for?” Rhiannon asks quietly.
“I don’t know.” I shake my head but can’t ditch the feeling of absolute failure in my chest. At this point, Mira knew she wanted to seek out Teine.
“You memorized the cards, right?” she asks, lifting her brows. “So you know what’s out there?”
“Yes. I just don’t feel connected to any of them.” Which is better than feeling connected to a dragon another rider has their eye on. I have no desire to fight to the death today. “Dain tried talking me into a brown.”
“Dain lost his vote when he tried talking you into leaving,” she counters.
There’s a lot of truth to that. I’ve only talked to him once in the past two days since Presentation, and he tried to get me to run within the first five minutes. We’ve only seen professors this morning, but I know the secondand third-year riders are scattered throughout this valley in order to observe. “What about you?”
She grins. “I’m thinking about that green. The one closest to me when they got all up close and personal with you.”
“Well, it didn’t eat you, so that’s a promising start.” I smile despite the fear racing through my veins.
“I think so, too.” She links her arm with mine, and I focus back on what Professor Kaori is telling us.
“If you go in groups, you’re more likely to be incinerated than bonded,” Professor Kaori argues with someone near the center of the valley. “The scribes have run the statistics. You’re better off on your own.”
“And what if we aren’t chosen by dinner?” a man with a short beard to my left asks.
Looking past him, I catch Jack Barlowe running a finger across his neck at me. So original. Then Oren and Tynan flank his sides.
So much for squad loyalty. It’s everyone for themselves today.
“If you’re not chosen by nightfall, there’s a problem,” Professor Kaori responds, his thick mustache turned down at the ends. “You’ll be brought out by a professor or senior leadership, so don’t give up and think we’ve forgotten about you.” He checks his pocket watch. “Remember to spread out and use every foot of this valley to your advantage. It’s nine, which means they should be flying in any minute now. The only other words I have for you are ‘good luck.'” He nods, sweeping his gaze over the crowd of us with such intensity that I know he’ll be able to re-create this moment in a projection.
Then he leaves, marching up the hill to our right and disappearing into the trees.
My mind whirls. It’s time. I’ll either leave this forest as a rider…or likely never leave.
“Be careful.” Rhiannon pulls me into a hug, her braids swinging over my shoulder as she tightens her arms around me.
“You too.” I squeeze her back and am immediately swept into another pair of arms.
“Don’t die,” Ridoc orders.
That’s our only goal as what’s left of our squad separates, each heading in our own direction like we’ve been flung apart by centrifugal motion, at the mercy of a spinning wheel.
Guessing by the position of the sun, it’s been at least a couple of hours since the dragons flew overhead, landing in the valley in a succession that sounded like thunder and making the earth shake.
I’ve come across two greens, a brown, four oranges, and-
My heart stumbles and my feet freeze to the forest floor as a red steps into my field of vision, its head just under the canopy of enormous trees.
This is not my dragon. I’m not sure how I know, but I do.
I hold my breath, trying not to make a sound as its head sweeps right, then left, and my gaze plummets to the ground as I bow my head.
For the last hour or so, I’ve seen dragons launch into the air with a cadet -now a rider-on their back, but I’ve also seen more than a couple of plumes of smoke, and I have no desire to be one of those.
The dragon huffs a breath, then continues along its path, its clubtail flicking upward and catching one of the lower-hanging branches. The limb falls to the ground with a monstrous crash, and only after the footsteps recede do I finally raise my head.
I’ve now come across every color of dragon, and none of them has spoken to me or given me the sense of connection we’re reportedly supposed to feel.
My stomach sinks. What if I’m one of the cadets who’s destined to never become a rider? One who’s thrown back time and again to restart first year until eventually something puts me on the death roll? Has this all been for nothing?
The thought is too heavy to carry.
Maybe if I could just see the valley, then I’d get a feeling like Professor Kaori was talking about.
I spot the nearest climbable tree and get to work, scaling branch after branch. Pain radiates from my hands, but I don’t let it distract me. The bark catching the wraps that still cover my palms… Now that’s an annoyance that makes me pause every few feet and pull the cloth free of the bark.
Pretty sure the higher branches aren’t going to support my weight, so I stop about three-quarters to the top and survey the immediate area.
There are a few greens in plain sight to my left, standing out against the fall foliage. Oddly enough, this is the one time of year when oranges, browns, and reds have the highest chance of blending in. I watch the trees for movement and spot a couple more directly south, but there’s no pull, no aching need to head in that direction, which probably means those aren’t mine, either.
Relief hits me embarrassingly hard when I count at least half a dozen first-years wandering aimlessly. I shouldn’t be so happy that they haven’t found their dragons, either, but at least I’m not the only one, which gives me hope.
There’s a clearing to the north, and my eyes narrow as a flash, like a mirror, catches the sun.
Or like a golden dragon.
Guess the little feathertail is still out here appeasing its curiosity. But I’m apparently not going to find my dragon up a tree, so I climb down carefully and as quietly as possible. My feet hit the ground just before voices approach, and I tuck myself against the trunk to hide from being seen.
We’re not supposed to be in groups.
“I’m telling you, I think I saw it headed this way.” It’s a cocky voice I immediately recognize as Tynan.
“You’d better be right, because if we just hiked all the way the fuck over here just to find nothing, I’m going to run you through.” My stomach twists. It’s Jack. No one else’s voice has that physical effect on me, not even Xaden’s.
“You sure we shouldn’t be spending our time looking for our own dragons instead of hunting the freak down?” Recognition tickles the edges of my mind, but I lean out from my hiding place just to be sure. Yep, it’s Oren.
I dart back behind the cover of the tree as the trio passes, each strapped with a deadly sword. There are nine daggers tucked against my body in various places, so it’s not like I’m unarmed, but I feel tragically disadvantaged by my inability to wield a sword effectively. They’re just too damned heavy.
Wait…what did they say they were doing? Hunting?
“It’s not like our dragons are going to bond other riders,” Jack snaps. “They’ll wait for us. This has to be done. That scrawny one is going to get someone killed. We have to take it out.”
Nausea swirls in my stomach, and my fingernails bite into my palms.
They’re going to try and kill the little golden one.
“If we get caught, we’re fucked,” Oren comments.
That’s an understatement. I can’t imagine dragons would take kindly to killing one of their own, but they seem to be focused on culling the weak from the herd in our species, so it’s not a stretch to imagine they do the same with their own.
“Then you’d better shut your mouth so no one hears us,” Tynan counters, his voice rising in that mocking tone that makes me want to punch him in the face.
“It’s for the best,” Jack argues, his tone dropping. “It’s unrideable, a certified freak, and you know feathertails are useless in combat. They refuse to fight.” His voice fades as they walk farther away, headed north.
Toward the clearing.
“Shit,” I mutter under my breath even though the assholes are out of hearing range by now. No one knows anything about feathertails, so I don’t know where Jack is getting his information, but I don’t have time to focus on his assumptions right now.
I have no way of contacting Professor Kaori, and there hasn’t even been a hint that the senior riders are watching us, so I can’t count on them to stop this madness, either. The golden dragon should be able to breathe fire, but what if it can’t?
There’s a chance they won’t find it, but… Shit, I can’t even convince myself of that one. They’re headed the right way and that dragon is pretty much a shiny beacon. They’ll find it.
My shoulders sag and I sigh at the sky, blowing out a frustrated breath.
I can’t just stand here and do nothing.
You can get there first and warn it.
Solid plan, and way better than option two, where I’d be forced to take on three armed men with at least a combined two hundred pounds on me.
I keep my footsteps silent and race across the forest floor at a slightly different angle than Jack’s little posse, thankful I grew up playing hide-andseek with Dain in the woods. This is one area of expertise I can confidently claim.
They’ve got a head start on me, and the clearing is closer than I realized, so I kick up my speed, my gaze darting between the leaf-covered path I’ve chosen and where I think-scratch that, where I know they are toward the left. I can make out their lumbering shapes in the distance.
I hear a pop, and the ground falls out from under me, then rushes for my face. My hands fly out to brace myself a second before I slam into the forest floor. I bite into my lower lip to keep from crying out as my ankle screams. Popping isn’t good. It’s never good.
Glancing back, I curse at the fallen branch, hidden by fall foliage, that’s just wrecked my ankle. Shit.
Block the pain. Block it. But there’s no mental trick to keep the shooting agony from turning my stomach as I drag myself to my knees and rise carefully, keeping my weight on my left ankle.
There’s nothing to do but limp the final dozen feet to the clearing, gritting my teeth the whole way. The tinge of satisfaction that I beat Jack here is almost enough to make me smile.
The meadow is big enough for ten dragons, ringed by several large trees, but the golden one stands alone in the center, like it’s trying to get a suntan. It’s just as beautiful as I remember, but unless it can breathe fire, it’s a sitting duck.
“You have to get out of here!” I hiss from the cover of the trees, knowing it should be able to hear me. “They’re going to kill you if you don’t leave!”
Its head pivots toward me, then tilts at an angle that makes my own neck hurt.
“Yes!” I whisper loudly. “You! Goldie!” It blinks its golden eyes and swishes its tail.
You have to be fucking kidding me.
“Go! Run! Fly!” I shoo at it, then remember it’s a godsdamned dragon, capable of shredding me with its claws alone, and drop my hands. This is not going well. It’s going the opposite of well.
The trees rustle from the south, and Jack steps into the clearing, his sword swaying in his right hand. A step later, he’s flanked by Oren and Tynan, both their weapons drawn.
“Shit,” I mutter, my chest tightening. This is now officially going horribly.
The golden dragon’s head snaps in their direction, a low growl rumbling in its chest.
“We’ll make it painless,” Jack promises, like that makes the murder acceptable.
“Scorch them,” I whisper-shout, my heart pounding as they draw closer. But the dragon doesn’t, and somehow, I’m certain in the marrow of my bones that it can’t. Other than its teeth, it’s defenseless against three trained warriors.
It’s going to die just because it’s smaller, weaker than the other dragons…just like me. My throat closes.
The dragon backs up, its growl growing louder as it bares its teeth.
Stomach pitching, I have that Parapet feeling again-whatever I do next has overwhelming odds of ending my life.
And yet, I’m still going to do it because this is wrong.
“You can’t do this!” I take the first step into the shin-high grass and Jack’s attention swings my way. My ankle has a heartbeat of its own, and agony streaks up my spine, chattering my teeth as I force my weight onto my ruined joint so they won’t see me limping. They can’t know I’m hurt, or they’ll just attack faster.
One at a time, I stand a chance of holding them off long enough for the dragon to escape, but together… Don’t think about it.
“Oh, look!” Jack grins, pointing his sword my way. “We can take out both the weakest links at the same time!” He looks at his friends and laughs, pausing their advance.
Each step hurts worse than the last, but I make it to the center of the clearing, putting myself between Jack’s group and the golden dragon.
“Been waiting a long time for this, Sorrengail.” He walks forward slowly.
“If you can fly, now would be a good time,” I shout over my shoulder at the small dragon, drawing two daggers from the sheaths at my ribs.
The dragon chuffs. So helpful.
“You can’t kill a dragon,” I try reasoning, shaking my head at the trio, fear lacing my veins with adrenaline.
“Sure we can.” Jack shrugs, but Oren looks a little uncertain, so I pin my gaze on him as they spread out slightly about a dozen feet away, setting up the perfect formation for an attack.
“You can’t,” I say directly to Oren. “It goes against everything we believe in!”
He flinches. Jack doesn’t.
“Letting something so weak, so incapable of fighting, live is against our beliefs!” Jack shouts, and I know he’s not just talking about the dragon.
“You’re going to have to get through me, then.” My heart thunders against my ribs as I raise my daggers, flipping one to pinch the tip so I’m ready to throw and measuring the twenty or so feet separating me from my attackers.
“I don’t really consider that a problem,” Jack snarls.
They all lift their swords, and I draw a deep breath, readying myself to fight. This isn’t the mat. There are no instructors. No yielding. Nothing to stop them slaughtering me…slaughtering us.
“I would strongly recommend you rethink your actions,” a voice-his voice-demands from across the field to my right.
My scalp prickles as each of our heads swivel in his direction.
Xaden is leaning against the tree, his arms folded across his chest, and behind him, watching with narrowed golden eyes, her fangs exposed, is Sgaeyl, his terrifying navy-blue daggertail.