(After NaNoWriMo, I now return you to the regular programming already in progress)
Chapter 19. Team Training
Jona walked down the stairs of the spire, the circular stairs were enough to make him dizzy, what was once a good place to visit now was a dizzy walk down the stairs, Each floor had its own landing for dragons and creature comforts for humans and drake alike.
Pausing to look around, an older student stepped out of the hallway into the circular common room and yelled at Jona.
“WHAT are doing here, slug? You are trespassing! Your kind does not even earn the right to breathe here! This is upper class area, we allow your years only in the cellar or lower.” Yelled the otherwise pretty girl. “Get out of here, what are you looking at, worm?”
She looked Jona up and down with the look of someone who had smelled something unclean.
“Not much, that’s for sure.” As he walked down the stairs, the girl had paused for a moment then began to yell at him and as other students came out she explained, loudly, how a lower class student violated common room’s sanctity.
Finally! He made it to the courtyard. Jona spied a friendly face and relaxed. The steps of following older students had stopped after a few flights. Jona had not hurried, unafraid of the other students, but the sun on his face outside made the nasty faced girl seem much farther away.
Kolo was across the court-yard and waved at Jona, with a wide smile on her face. She seemed pleased to see him.
“You are going to practice now? I’ll go with you, there is something that the teams are needing to do, they need to practice racing together.”
The troubles seemed so far behind him as they walked out of the volcano and into the brisk early winter’s sunlight. Fresh snow had fallen on the ground, the meadow sat Eva and surrounding the meadow were all the dragon racers and most of the riders. In the saddle of a yellow and black tiger-striped dragon, sat the girl who yelled at him, she had not noticed him, laughing and talking with a rugged looking muscular rider next to her and the ride as he kicked the ground and laughed at what the blond human girl was saying.
Jona stood on the far side of Eva and patted her shoulder. Eva turned and said quietly, “You are just in time, the captain is about to explain what we are doing today.”
Jona looked around to the riders, each one wore a leather cap with goggles, all decorated differently, different colors but all had the crest of the school on the front. Each cap seemed to match the rider to the ride. Scale colors and caps were very similar.
“Attention” Teva called, “Today we have Eva back with us as a racer, this is her first full team practice and her rider is also new to us. Chosen by dragons to attend our school and found by our own Kolo as a rider.” Teva smiled and clapped at Kolo.
“Jona would you come here, please? I have something for you.” Teva waved Jona over to him in the center of the meadow.
Jona stepped out from behind Eva and the blond girl stopped smiling and just stared with her mouth in a big “O”, frozen in mid sentence. Then leaning over to the large rider, she pointed at Jona and began to whisper and point.
Teva took no notice.
“I formally welcome you to the team of Dragon Racers.” He said loud enough for all to hear. ‟Jona, you have learned well under the skilled tutelage of Kolo and Eva — and me of course.”
With this cap, wear it while you fly, it serves to protect that head of yours, bird strikes hurt, and your eyes. You are the hind eyes and co-pilot of the ride as they fly. Decorate the hat as you win to match your tastes, but keep the colors with that of your ride so it marks you not only as a team of our school, but as a team of a ride and rider. Jona, I welcome you.”
“WAIT!” The blond girl yelled, “HE cannot be a rider! We have to vote on it and he has not been here long enough.”
“Votes have never mattered, you only suggested it last year and it was never agreed, Kelly, you have no say in this, I am captain and I will decide who is on our teams. Jona here is looking good enough to join the team, he rides fast and keeps eyes out and has a great balance and relationship with Eva.”
Kelly looked as if she had a bug fly up her nose and turned away, speaking quietly and quickly to the big rider and his huge ride.
Jona bowed slightly to the clapping as he put on the cap, several cheers went up and a few roars from the dragons. Kelly’s dragon started to hoot in a cheer but Kelly pulled the reins she had on him tight, cutting off his honoring sound.
Jona returned to Eva, and Big Rider stepped up behind him, “You do not belong here, should not even ride, you have no business in this race. You get up there, we will have issues. Do you understand me? You are the baby waste that was on our floor and stunk it up? Well, you will find that there is payment due for that trespass, maggot.”
Big Rider backed off when Eva turned around, and stared at him.
“Just remember, you don’t belong.” as his ride stepped up, an equally huge, twice Eva’s wing span and half again as tall with smoke curling from the big males nostrils. “Eva, you should not have come back after your accident if this is what you think of as quality rider material.” With that, he climbed up and the ride and rider flew off.
“Do not fret about him, Jona,” Eva said, “We have our own practice to do still. The rider is Stixx, the ride is Kanus. Kanus knocked me out of the sky last year and caused my crash. He said it was an accident, but the judges ruled it an intentional fault by the rider. The judges suspended them for two races for overly aggressive racing. We have to keep an eye on them, but so long as I know where they are, they won’t pose a problem.”
Jona nodded. “I’m also worried about the blond girl who is a rider.”
“Her?” Kolo had walked up after talking with Teva, “Kelly is insane. Insane and stupid, when she chooses to dislike someone, she uses every chance she can to complain and whine. She is a problem, but not a good rider, she treats her ride like a common horse or burro. See the reins?”
“You ever think to put reins on me, Jona, I will teach you the meaning of fire-breathing and a rough ride.” Eva interrupted.
“She abuses her relationship with Sol, her ride.” Kolo said. “They are not friends, Sol is a good dragon, fast, smart but never gives all because of her.”
“Why does he race with her then?” Jona asked.
“I don’t know, there is gossip, but nothing proven. I think it has to do with he was failing a class and she caught him cheating one time. He is very smart — and proud. It would be a disaster for him if he had cheating come to light.” Eva said.
Jona shook his head, saddened that extortion was something he had to put up with in school. Kola climbed on his ride, Zerksees. With all the riders on the backs of the rides, a cheer from most the dragons stood up as tall as they could and roared.
“This map I am handing out to you is this years route. I propose we follow the route and time ourselves, this will be a real race, let’s see who can cross the finish line first, regular race rules apply, we race against ourselves. Try not to bump each other! We don’t need injuries before the inter-school races.” Teva said chuckling, “We are all on the same side and all.”
Captain Teva yelled “Launch!” and they all shot into the sky.
Eva banked down into a canyon around a butte, Jona was guiding her with his voice as he read off the map and with body language.
“Above!” Jona yelled as Sol dove and passed them in a tight bank, to which Eva had turned to the inside. Down the canyon they sailed and soared, out into a large valley, Kanus easily outdistancing the group, all except for Eva who had kept up without straining herself, Sol was fifth in line, three rides back with Kolo and her ride, Qo’noS, behind Jona.
“Hang on, Kanus is going to use his speed to get ahead, but we don’t have to stay close, just close enough until we get into the canyons for the return trip. To turn, Kanus has GOT to bank and with those big wings, he has to slow down, so he can pull them in.” Eva said in a rumble.
Faster they flew, paralleling the mountain range in the flat lands of the desert. Kanus began to dig deep with great rapid beats of his wings, Eva pushed with more energy than Jona had seen so far, she was not overheating, but he could feel the muscles strain and stretch under her scales and flesh.
“Keep your head down, Jona, we are going for more speed, Kanus is overconfident, he has not looked back.”
Jona looked back. Kola was trying to keep up and he was a distant third, Sol and Kelly were so far behind he couldn’t see her. Faster than the sun they traveled, it appeared to move backwards to the east. Jona could see that Kolo’s ride was fatiguing and slowing slightly but staying directly behind Eva, using her to break the wind as was their plan. The sound of the wind was the familiar hiss with an opaque cataract seem to follow Eva’s shoulders. Jona could see that Kanus was pushing a larger shock-wave and had the disadvantage to being unable to look back at this speed.
“Jona, I can smell Kanus, Stixx is pushing him and Kanus is overheating. I can smell the body heat that his scales are trying to expel.”
“What happens if he gets too hot from exercising? Do Dragons sweat”? Jona asked.
“We do, but not like humans, if it gets very bad, you will see him start to lose scales, we shed hot scales and bare flesh is open to the air and he will grow new ones later.” Eva said. “But he will lose the smooth flow of air over his body and it leave him open to injury.”
“How are you doing?” Jona was running his hands under Eva’s scales, looking for any overheated spots.
“Two things, ONE, I’m okay at the moment, the practice runs out to the continental divide have really helped. TWO , stop that! You are tickling me.” Eva giggled in a way that only a dragon could.
A few minutes later, as Jona was looking on the map, telling Eva that the turn into the mountains was over a pile of old rock lava flows.
“I know where those are, just a few minutes more, Kanus is slowing down a bit and I am not even that tired. I didn’t have to race that hard, just stayed in his wake.” Eva laughed as her flight plan was working, no other dragon had yet used drafting from a distance like she had done.
“The draft is a new idea?” Jona wondered.
“Drafting is not new, but from this distance it is, it is not a big boost like if I was right on his tail, but I don’t have to engage him in combat this way and still get a tiny boost. Kola, Kolo’s brother thought of it.”
Banking over dry and rocky ground, Eva and Jona sailed through the peeks over a plateau into the high mountains. Banking hard, they were in a small canyon that snaked back and forth from millions of years of tributary erosion had made the tortuous small canyon tight. No longer lagging behind, Eva was closing the gap as Jona grinned and looked behind, Kolo was also getting closer.
“We’ve been seen.” Eva said.
Stixx had looked back and his eyes widened in surprise behind his goggles as the two dragons had caught up as they banked in and out of the mountains. The rest of the group was closing up , but were still far behind. The large dragon could not bank around the small twists and bends of the mountain peaks.
Forests began to get more lush and deeper, down sheer cliff walls as they followed a waterfall, then a stream along a rapids. Then banking and out into a wide valley, where in the clear air that Kanus pushed and pushed by his rider. Kanus had tried too hard and fatigued, unable now to shake the neck and neck dragons, they went into the next canyon three wide. Kolo and Qo’noS ducked down, using her ride’s slightly smaller wingspan to bank more tightly and gaining more points, Eva and Jona went closer to the mountains using compression of the air to help get them around corners.
Stixx was unable to get his ride to bank tightly enough and missed one turn, having to pull up and return to it, falling back six spots in a single overshoot of the corner.
Jona looked back and could see Stixx shaking a fist at his ride as he pushed the dragon back into the race. Along the spine of the mountains they climbed and dove, Kolo was ahead, then Jona, both Eva and Qo’noS were enjoying themselves without exerting too much.
Then Jona yelled a warning, “Bank and climb! We are gonna hit!”
Eva had little time to react, but with the training done, Jona had given her just enough time as she extended one wing and folded the other, going into a spin and then both wings out and up, a huge shadow blew past them and went into the canyon.
“Stixx! He tried to bump us, but he has more turns coming. ” Eva said.
Teva and his ride Tron had seen, nearly catching up to them as they yelled at each other encouragement and ignored the cheat by the fellow team, they raced on.
In and around the canyons they went. Stixx slipped further behind, charging forward. Two rides, bumped by the older students, had to fall back for missed turns, leaving three racers with Stixx that were his friends. Kelly, Stixx, Robert and Lyster flew in formation and gained on Teva, Kola and Jona.
They raced through the mountains, suddenly bumping and bruising each other in this practice race, the following racers were afraid to continue. Lyster, a small pale senior rider with blue cat eyes rode his ride Muon and brushed up against Teva and then went straight at Eva as they went into a corner, Muon was moving far to fast at the wrong angle for the corner coming up, and with a warning, Eva dove, followed by the excessive speed of Muon and Lyster.
Pulling up, Eva knew what was coming, Stixx and Kanus were moving in from the other side. Eva flared out her wings and hit the brakes. Stixx and Lyster collided and went down into the river as Eva dug deep into the air currents to catch back up to Kola and the backwards looking Teva who had seen it all.
On they raced, Stixx and Lyster were out of the race, Kelly and Robert were trying to close in, but Sol was of no mood for games and Robert had not practiced, both falling behind the three leaders as they finally crossed the finish line at the meadow, dismounted and were talking before the others pulled in.
“I want to file a complaint! This newbie here caused Stixx to collide with Lyster and they went down into the water.” Kelly complained, “They were not doing it right!”
Teva looked at her impassively. “Like be knocked from the sky by your boyfriend? No, Kelly I saw what happened, if I see it again, as captain I can and I will take them off the team, that is not a racer’s way to win.” Teva looked steadily at her, “Besides, they have not been practicing and neither have you, Sol here is unwilling to put himself out on a limb for you because of your attitude. Fix it, or Sol will find himself a new rider on my recommendation. “
“First he is not my boyfriend, I am engaged to Hortense the Honorable. Second. Only so long as you are Captain, Captain.” Kelly said. “If you ever drop out, Stixx is next in line and he follows fraternal law.”
“You should not worry about that, just ride like a racer is your concern.” Teva said mildly.
As the other racers pulled together. Robert standing shyly back, clearly not enjoying the fracture of the team. Stixx making noises to Teva about how Jona fouled him in the corners and he collided with Lyster and his ride.
Lyster looked around as Teva and Stixx were arguing and walked over to Jona, “If you ever knock me out of the air again, I will break you and your little dragon rider over there, too.”
Kolo had heard that and walked up to Lyster, “Try it, you will find yourself being a walking racer, we can find other riders or dragons. You have a good dragon that likes to race, but instead you try to use him as a weapon instead of a partner for a race.”
Lyster blinked, he was larger than she was, but he was not about to cause a scene so close to the captain of the teams, he’d be removed and he did not have Stixx as a backup. Lyster backed away, with a muttered threat that was nearly inaudible as he walked back to his ride and rode away to the dragon’s aerie.
Teva returned from his animated discussion with Stixx and Kelly looking over at the departing Lyster, “What was that about?”
“Nothing, just a show of his bruises.” Jona said as Kolo giggled. “We weren’t impressed, I have seen much better.”
Teva nodded, looking sideways at Jona, not believing him. “As you wish, I won’t have bullying and infighting with the teams, if we are to win the world cup this year, we need a focused team. We will race the dirtiest racer school if we get past Drakensbergs’s and Lord’s.”
“Other racer schools? And dirty racing?” Jona said, surprised at the news of so many more others. “Are there not judges?”
Teva nodded, “Yes, there are judges, but they cannot be in all corners always, bumps happen, accidents happen, but a dirty racer — well, like today — can cause an accident without being observed by judges. Schools like Dragon Lance and ‘kind first are very physical racers, they are known to rub and bump — that is regular racing, but they take it to the point of trying intimidate the other racers into letting them win. That’s not racing, that is bullying. So, we must practice and have aggressive and skilled racers of our own.” Teva paused, “Without trying to bully our way to the winning circle.”
Eva looked around speaking softly, “Qo’noS and I are going to rest and clean at Dragon house, practice again in a few hours?”
Teva nodded, “Sunset after classes, Eva. We do a team race practice again.”
Off Eva flew, in the light of the day, still needing to clean up, all the remaining riders went to their houses and rooms. Jona looked forward to the coming races, the challenges of a race like this would make his parents proud, but he would have to wait until he had done it before he would tell his mother.
“She would have apoplexy if she knew what I was doing on the back of dragons” Jona thought to himself.