Excerpt from The Last Warrior by Melissa Manuel

Katia will you hurry up?!” Danielle practically screeched as she banged her fist against the door.

With a sigh I reply, “Dani I just go in here.”

She hit the door three more times with what she considers “emphasis”. I turn to the mirror and start brushing my hair for what could be the hundredth time considering I lost count after 64. My fingers hover at the tips and rub it between my fingers. My hair swings past my hips and seems like a witch’s cape because of its deep shade. This always amuses me considering my eyes are such a light blue they might as well be considered clear.

Since I decided to camp out in the bathroom all night I painfully remove my pajamas and put on my clothes that were sprawled on the floor because I kept throwing them at the wall. I check how I look- all wrinkly but good.

  Walking out of the bathroom I hold back a smile as Danielle shoves past me and slams the bathroom door behind her. And I’m the younger sibling. Slipping into the kitchen I play it cool appearing nonchalant but as soon as Mom sees me she says, “What’s wrong? You look sick. Are you sick? If you are you can stay home.”

She presses her hand against my forehead checking for a fever. “Mom I’m fine it’s five in the morning I have every right to look sickly.”

She shakes her head, “To be exact it’s almost six and you are going to be late, go eat breakfast while I get the beauty queen out of the bathroom.” I laugh and walk up to the table where Dad, good ol’ dad, is reading the newspaper.

“How’s the headline?” I ask as I grab a banana. His blue eyes glance up at me. “Trolley strike news, again.” I smile at the insider grab my bag and turn to the door. “Tell Dani I’m walking see you later.”

Dad makes a salute and I walk out the door. I walk along the sidewalk till I reach the fence that separates the woods and society. It’s covered in moss and is threatening to split in half, I step over the breaking point and step into the trees. My legs are shaking with anxiety as I find the dirt path created by my own feet and walk to the park. Suddenly the trees begin to get further apart till it all opens up to an empty space with dead grass and the oldest play set anyone could ever dream of. The slide has fallen off the play set which has become so rusted and broken all the playing parts have become death traps. The swing set is somewhat alive rusted yet painted over and over with two seats barely hanging on with some duct tape. I shake my hands a bit and pace the perimeter of the empty space before I finally cup my hands around my mouth and call out, “Zakarius!”

I wait a few beats before I feel the wind pick up around me and watch the dead leaves dance in the air till the Dragon lands killing the leave’s dance with her huge feet. The Dragon’s jade scales sparkle in the rising sun light creating a remarkable sight that seems almost blinding. Zakarius sits at the base of her long neck and smiles down at me green eyes gleaming, “Nervous?”

I scoff at him, “Me? Nervous? Never.” Though my legs are shaking and a cold sweat is breaking out. I’m not nervous.

“Then c’mon let’s get going or someone is going to be late for their own Choosing Day.”

He reaches down offering his hand, I quickly rub my hands on my jeans to take off the sweat before grabbing and letting him haul me up behind him. I run my hands across the green scales and ask, “How’s Naria feeling?”  Zak pats her neck, “Perfect as always. Now let’s go Naria; she’s stalling.”

Before I can protest Naria lunges up spreading her wings into the sky. She does a spin before soaring higher up and catches a gale setting us on a quicker course. Closing my eyes I relish as the wind whips my hair and cuts through me. The feeling of flying above everything never gets old and every time I get the chance to fly I jump for it; sometimes literally.

Suddenly Naria aims downward and I know we’re about to land. Below us a village begins to slowly come into view. The first thing I see is the castle, the center of the village. Its walls gleam in a million colors, some say the castle itself is like a Dragon’s scales. Surrounding the castle are dozens of small houses and roads and carts selling fruit and Dragon care needs. Naria lands swiftly upon a grassy knoll that looks over the main shopping center. I slide off Naria’s back and step back as Zak sends her off to wherever she lives. Only Zak knows that. He turns to me and laughs at me. “You are nervous! You’re so pale!” I stick my chin up and cross my arms.

“Maybe I’m a little nervous, what of it?” He stops laughing and just smiles at me shaking his head.

“All right well let’s head to the Arena then.” He starts walking and I stand there, stupidly, wishing maybe if I don’t move everything will work out without me actually having to go. Zak turns his head and starts a demonstration of how one walks.

“Okay I get it! I’m walking.” I follow him down the hill and let the noise of the village fill in for talking. We walk through the mess of people to the road which is surrounded by stone houses. Zak pulls over a cart and we climb in. The driver asks if we’re headed to the Arena and when we confirm he lets his horses start. “So what color Dragon do you think you’re going to get?” He sits back glancing over at me pushing his coffee colored hair out of his eyes.

I shrug my shoulders, “I don’t care as long as I get one. You make it sound like I for sure am going to get one.” Zak shakes his head at me.

“Because you are going to get one, no question no arguments.”

I roll my eyes and the cart stops in front of the tall Arena. Its tan brick walls scare me at the idea of what will happen within them. Zak and I thank the driver and squeeze past the enormous crowd trying to get to the stands. We finally reach the entrance to the tunnels which are between the walls where a smiling lady with a clipboard is signing off names. Before Zak leaves I ask the question that has been bothering me all morning. “How many people are choosing?” Zak’s easy smile falters and my stomach plummets. “How many Zak?”

“Twenty-eight.” I wanted to throw up.

“How many Dragons?” Zak looks up as if asking for patience, “Ten,” before I can cry out he interrupts me, “Ten Dragons and one is for you Katia, I promise you.” With that he turns off and disappears into the crowd. With a heavy heart I turn to the clipboard lady.

“Name?”

“Katia Zarna.”

Her perky smile dropped a bit causing my crushing disappointment to go even further.

“Room twenty-eight.” Well why am I surprised, I get to be last. She ushers me in and I enter the cool dim sloping hallway. I distract myself looking at the gold walls each door has a huge number on it, and each door displays a different color. Between the doors are paintings of famous Flyers and Messengers with their Dragons. When I reach door twenty-eight I see my grandma’s picture next to the door. The picture is ancient, considering the fact it’s painted. Grandma’s Dragon is curled up behind her with its neck up high. They painted his scales a brilliant royal blue and Grandma’s Flyer suit was the same color making her short dark hair stand out. She had a smile so confident that it puts me to shame; she was born a Flyer and will die one.

I grab the golden knob of the door glancing at Grandma once more before turning the knob and walking into the room. Closing the door behind me I glance at the small room’s interior. On the wall facing me is a full size mirror and next to it is a mannequin with a black Dragon riding uniform. The uniform is basically a jumpsuit that covers the neck to wrist to ankle with small compartments to hold weapons. But they are only there for decoration now. Messengers don’t need weapons and Flyers haven’t used swords or whips for the longest time. I run my fingers over the silky material and smile.

It may be black but it’s still mine, but why would the King put a black suit for me… it unnerves me even more about today. Shaking away all dark thoughts I slide into the jumpsuit and turn to leave when a long case catches my eye. It’s hidden in the back corner of the room and is about three feet long.

Nobody told me there’d be a box in here; I crouch down to open the case to find a sword lying inside surrounded by red silky fabric. My breath catches as I slide my hand over the cold steel. But then I realize, no, it’s diamond, and it’s absolutely beautiful. My reflection is dimly seen in the crystal like material of the blade. Picking it up by the black leather handle I can feel how light the blade is and how balanced it feels. Curious at how sharp the blade could be I run my finger through the side and let out a small scream. Blood wells up in a thin long cut in my forefinger.

Shaking I stand up and hold the sword out to admire the craftsmanship. A sharp knock on the door brings me back to reality.

A loud deep voice rumbles through the door, “Time to get out!”

I let out a shaky breath and find the scabbard on my suit and place the sword inside. It fits perfectly inside, “Okay this isn’t terrifying. I bet everyone is getting swords now.” I say to myself, but my voice shakes so much I couldn’t reassure a child.

Yet I satisfy myself with that and walk out. Everyone is lined up at the exit to the Arena floor, I run to the back of the line which happens to be my place and the door opens letting a stream of sunlight in. The line begins to move and I walk behind a tall girl in a green jumpsuit.

Once out in the light the crowds in the stands cheer. The Arena is practically full for today’s Choosing Ceremony I smile remembering being in the stands myself.

The twenty-eight of us who are Choosing line up side by side in the middle of the Arena facing Lady Miranda who is trying to get her microphone to work. Technology still never seems to work in the village.

I search the stands for familiar faces till I finally spot Zak sitting with Carla, Alyssa, Christopher, and Grandma. I lock eyes with Grandma and she gives me a big proud smile. Suddenly static explodes in everyone’s ears as Lady Miranda’s microphone finally decides to work.

“Sorry! Sorry, all right let’s begin!” She sends us a big white smile which only makes all of us even more nervous.

“Welcome to another Choosing Ceremony! Today we have twenty-eight lovely children who are Choosing today. This is one of the largest groups we’ve had in awhile compared to only ten Dragons who have been selected to find their lifetime companions today,”

She sends us a sympathetic look as her graying hair falls out of her braid, “But don’t lose hope! Let the Dragons in!” She backs up as ten Dragons fly down and land in front of us. We all take ten steps back as silence fills the Arena. Lady Miranda begins introducing each person.

“Hailey Cataria.” A small girl with a pixie cut in a yellow suit steps forward and bows to the Dragons.

“David Hackle.” A teenage guy steps forward and bows. It goes on like this till Lady Miranda finally announces my name.

“Katia Zarna.” I take one step forward and bow to the ten Dragons. As I step back Lady Miranda goes through the instructions I know by heart.

“If a Dragon approaches you and bows you shall be a Messenger. If a Dragon approaches you and blows fire to the air you are a Flyer. As simple as that!” She glances at us with one more sympathetic look, “Dragons you may begin.”

The twenty-eight of us take another ten steps apart to create a larger gap between each person. The Arena is in complete silence. I watch the Dragons carefully they’re all young still small for a Dragon probably only three years old each.

The first Dragon steps forward his scales are a stunning orange. He is on the other side of the arena he begins walking toward my side of the Arena. The next Dragon follows behind him. A collective gasp fills the Arena as each Dragon does the same till they reach me forming a line of towering beasts with heavy footsteps.

The orange Dragon is in front of me now. I hold my breath and the air feels hotter around me and  he turns around and lies down in front of me. The crowd begins to stir. The next Dragon with light blue scales lies next to me on my right. They go on like this till all ten Dragons have lied down around me with me in the center. My heart races and I’m ninety nine point nine percent certain that I’m the color of a tomato and I’m sweating like a sinner in church. My hands are clenched tightly in fists at my sides.

A few beats of horrified silence till Lady Miranda’s panicked voice comes through the speakers.

“Everyone please remain calm as we wait for King Darius to come down and address-”

She was cut off by a sudden flurry of Dragons coming down from above the other Choosers have to run off to the border of the Arena to avoid getting crushed. I see Naria fly down among them. I’m in such a shock I just stand there with my hands clenched, trying to maintain some essence of calm. All of the Dragons that could fit lying down did so, the rest flew to the borders above the top stands and sat like birds on a fence.

Then in perfect unison they all unfurled their wings which made a gorgeous sound of a hundred sails opening. I feel my jaw drop a bit as all of them begin to fly around the arena in a splendid dance. They soared and swooped above and below one another. All I could see from where I stood in the center of the Arena was a blur of brilliant colors, wings, and claws. They kept the dance going for five minutes their wings reaching a rhythm close to music and the ones flying highest blew fire and the heat increased in the Arena.

I couldn’t see anyone in the stands, all I saw was the flurry of colors flying past me: scarlet, violet, cerulean, gold, emerald, and colors that I can’t find a name to justify the shade.

When they finally settled down to their initial positions of lying down and sitting of the edge of the Arena the orange Dragon ended up on my left again.

At this point everyone was holding their breath after what could’ve been another five minutes felt more like five hours all the Dragons stood and left as quickly as they came. The only ones that remained were the original ten, leaving the space in front of me empty this time. Five Dragons laid to my left and five to my right. At this point I’m visibly shaking from head to toe and my hands had fallen loose to my sides. My hair had even come loose from its tightly made braid.

After another couple seconds, Lady Miranda thinking it was all over walked out with King Darius. She was about to talk into the microphone when a large shadow fell over the Arena. The shadow dropped into the Arena and stood before me. The shadow was an obsidian Dragon. The sight let out screams from people in the stands. I felt my knees buckle and threaten to take me down. My first thought was, beautiful. Completely totally beautiful. Each scale screamed perfection and glowed with an aura of power.

But I could also feel the danger radiating off each claw and from his eyes which mixed and blended into different colors. This Dragon was wild, he is more fearsome and more pure than any Dragon I’ve ever faced.

He bowed to me and something within me stirred causing me to bow as well. He blew a dark purple flame into the sky and I moved forward shakily and stepped toward him, placing a hand on top of his snout. I felt a small shock of what felt like electricity burn through my hands. Taking my hands quickly off his snout I stepped back and looked into those dangerous eyes. The world fell away and for a minute it was just the Dragon and me. He opened his large inky wings and flew off. A dark shadow in the blue landscape of the sky.

In my state of confusion and fear I didn’t cry out as in “Oh no! The mystical Dragon which possibly just chose me has flown away!” I just stood there looking up with a serenity that shouldn’t be appropriate.

It was all shattered as the Arena broke out into chaos. Everyone was screaming demanding answers, demanding something to explain what they have witnessed. The panic finally kicked into everyone including me. Breathing heavily everything began to blur, I  looked into the crowds and saw two people who stood out in my dizzy state I could still see how they both sat quietly watching me. They didn’t look unnerved at what they have just witnessed. I was about to really take in what they looked like when I deep voice broke through the noise and I lost where the two people were sitting. All I could remember was seeing the color red.

“Quiet. Quiet everyone I need quiet,”

Slowly everyone began to lower their voices till it was quiet.

“Thank you, I know you are all in great panic and confusion but you must not blind yourself with gossip and crazy assumptions.”

He takes a breath and looks around the Arena. King Darius begins walking toward me. He has been alive for over a hundred years but he still looks like he is in his seventies. His white hair is shifted to the side and he wears a plain suit with a golden robe on top. When he gets to me I can see his grey eyes and I’m startled at the endless feeling they hold. They’ve seen too much. He lays a wrinkled hand on my shoulder.

“It seems this young woman has been chosen for something far greater than a Flyer. There may be a few of you who do know about our history know of the two kinds of Dragon riders that we have thought to be extinct.”

A murmur throughout the crowd began.

“Yes we called them Snakes and Warriors. The Snakes were a proud group of Dragon riders they could wield Magic, but to an extent. They were rich and powerful. But the ones who were truly special were the Warriors. Every Warrior possessed great holds of Magic and were of a royal blood. They were the Kings and Queens of our ancestors. They were thought to have been long since disappeared. But Katia,”

He turns to me and while speaking in the microphone looks at me in the eye,

“Is a Snake.”

At this very second everything turned blurry and muffled. My legs became liquid and I barely felt myself hit the ground, my hair fell across my face and shut out all the sunlight that seemed to be blinding me only seconds before. Part of me was upset that I would let myself crumble to the ground like some weak thing, but another part of me didn’t care because I could barely feel my own two feet. A pang of fear suddenly stabbed my chest, because I really can’t feel my feet or anything for that matter.

The cold fingers of panic tightened around my throat, restricting airflow and just making everything worse. My thoughts are getting more and more blurry until finally the horror ended when I slip into unconsciousness.

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