Chapter 40

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Chapter Forty

The junior Dragon Riders chattered excitedly as they gathered around the top ledge of the Bowl in their protective riding gear. Today would be the first time for the juniors to take their dragons on a solo ride through the In-Between. It was a rite of passage that marked them as true Dragon Riders.

Jaxx stood apart from the others, leaning heavily against Ciarran's foreleg. He reached up to pat her shoulder. His stomach was knotted from nervousness and he was afraid he was going to be sick. He remembered the pain and terror he felt when he and Ciarran had accidentally gone through the In-Between on their journey to Drak'ar and was not convinced that his riding gear and the potions he was given would be enough keep him safe.

Ciarran tried to reassure him, nuzzling him with her large head. I will be with you.

"I know," Jaxx said, "but I still don't want to go back there. The last time, if Lord Drakkar's people hadn't gotten to me when they did, I would have died."
But you did not, Ciarran said, sounding untroubled. I found help for you.

Jaxx gave her a small smile, but he could not stop worrying. As if his own memories of the In-Between were not bad enough, Commander Zionn had spent many hours impressing its dangers upon them.

"A safe arrival," the Commander said, "depends upon a dragon knowing exactly where to reappear. If you miscalculate, you can end up embedded in a tree or rock." A haunted shadow passed over his face. "It is a horrible way to die.

"Your dragons can communicate with each other about your destination before you make the leap, but they cannot hear each other once they are In-Between. They cannot warn each other of errors or dangers until they are back in normal space.

"You must stay mindful that there is always danger in using the In-Between for travel. Destination landscapes change, trees grow, buildings rise. When you tell your dragons where to go, you must always remind them to aim for a location high above ground."

Jaxx shuddered, thinking of all the things that could have gone wrong when he and Ciarran made their blind leap out of Caer Llanwyn.

Commander Zionn continued. "Before you make your first solo leap through the In-Between, I want you to get your amulets and form groups. You will take turns, first flying over the Bowl, then going through the In-Between to a spot over the ocean, which will be the safest destination. The amulets will help you find your way back if you miscalculate and reappear farther away than you planned. If you do not return within a reasonable time they will help us find you."

He paused and looked at each young rider in turn. "Stay safe. You may begin."

Ella bounded over to Jaxx, handing him his amulet. "Are you excited? I am. "

Jaxx shrugged.

Ella's eyes grew large. "Really? You're not happy we will finally be full Dragon Riders?" She stopped and put a hand to her mouth. "Oh Jaxx, I forgot."

"It's ok," Jaxx said. He did not need Ella's comment to remember that he was still restricted from using Ciarran's magic. His limitations were always on his mind. The only reason he was permitted to join the other riders today was because the jump through the In-Between was short and relatively safe. There had never been a rider lost or dragon injured for as long as anyone could remember.

"Don't forget the picnic after," said Ella, trying to redirect Jaxx's thoughts to happier things. "Once we've all gone through the In-Between, we get the rest of the day to celebrate. There will be games and food and music, and everyone in Drak'ar will stop by to congratulate us, even my uncle."

Jaxx cringed. Even though Lord Drakkar had reluctantly allowed his friendship with Ella to continue, Jaxx still preferred to avoid her uncle whenever possible.

To Jaxx's surprise, Kiellan and Asherr asked to group with them. He raised an eyebrow at Ella and she shrugged as if to say it was not her idea.

Feeling suspicious but not having a good reason to decline, Jaxx agreed to join them.

"Everyone has their amulet, yeah?" said Kiellan. He looked directly at Jaxx. "You know how to use this, right?"

Jaxx gave him a side eye. "I didn't ask to group with you; you asked me."

Ella punched Kiellan on his shoulder. "Come on boys, play nice. This is supposed to be fun. Don't ruin it by being jerks."

Kiellan opened his mouth to reply but was interrupted by the Commander.

"You there," Commander Zion said, "Kiellan of Nazar, you will go first."

Kiellan looked around at the other junior riders. "I guess he wants me to show you all how it's done."

He mounted Nazar and walked him to the Bowl's edge, pausing a moment too long.

Asherr cupped his hands around his mouth. "Bad," he said. Kiellan shot him a dirty look before nudging his dragon to jump off of the cliff. Nazar made a graceful circle around the Bowl's perimeter and then suddenly the rider and dragon disappeared with a popping sound.

Jaxx nervously searched the horizon for a sign of them. He exhaled a relieved breath when a shimmer appeared over the water and Kiellan and his dragon flew through it. They took an extra circle around the bowl before landing. Kiellan hopped off of Nazar's neck and strutted back to the others to the sound of clapping and cheering from his friends.
"Nothing to it," he said, puffing out his chest. He pointed to Asherr. "You next."

One by one, the other riders took their turns, basking in the glow of success and the encouragement of their friends. Finally, Jaxx was the only one left to go. He mounted Ciarran, trying to ignore the glances the other riders were giving each other.

Ella patted Jaxx on the leg encouragingly. "You will be great."

Jaxx answered her with a small smile before wrapping his legs tightly around Ciarran's neck. He tried to take the slow, calming breaths that Bard Mellaniya had taught him but could not quiet the churning in his stomach.

"Let's get this over with," he said to Ciarran.

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