In an alternate contemporary world, dragons and their riders compete in a spectacular (and spectacularly dangerous) international sports tournament…
Lana Torres has always preferred dragons to people. In a few weeks, sixteen countries will compete in the Blazewrath World Cup, a tournament where dragons and their riders fight for glory in a dangerous relay. Lana longs to represent her native Puerto Rico in their first ever World Cup appearance, and when Puerto Rico’s Runner—the only player without a dragon steed—is kicked off the team, she’s given the chance.
But when she discovers that a former Blazewrath superstar has teamed up with the Sire—a legendary dragon who’s cursed into human form—the safety of the Cup is jeopardized. The pair are burning down dragon sanctuaries around the world and refuse to stop unless the Cup gets cancelled. All Lana wanted was to represent her country. Now, to do that, she’ll have to navigate an international conspiracy that’s deadlier than her beloved sport.
Before the sport of Blazewrath was created, the question among witches and wizards remained the same: How can we keep our world a secret from humans who do not possess magic? This question did not have a long-term answer. In 1743, a dragon revealed itself to a Regular for the first time in recorded history. The dragon had not intended to disrupt the status quo of the magical community. It had wished to ask that Regular a different question: “Are you ready to soar?”
—Excerpt from Harleen Khurana’s A History of Blazewrath around the World
Dragons are better company than people.
Not that I hate people. Some are okay.
People can’t fly, though. Not with wings strong enough to break the shell of a dragon’s egg, which is as hard as steel. Wings that double as weapons. Witches and wizards use fancy metal wands and even fancier potions to get off the ground. So what? Dragons don’t need wands or potions. They can just fly.
Every two years, I watch them fly and fight for the Blazewrath World Cup.
No other sporting event is the home of dragon riders and their huge, badass steeds, hailing from the sixteen countries chosen to compete. Other sports have players who run. But they don’t have a Runner, the only player without a dragon steed, who has to reach the top of a magically conjured mountain before they’re blown away by a fireball or beaten to a pulp.
After today, that could be me.
For the billionth time, I sort through the stack of pages on my bed. Each one has a header that reads PUERTO RICO RUNNER TRYOUTS APPLICATION. I reread the first page:
Lana Aurelia Torres (Age: 17)
Application Accepted! Appointment: July 16, 2017 @ 1:00 p.m.
The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, Florida
*All candidates must possess an official birth certificate from Puerto Rico. If attending tryouts in the United States, candidates are required to participate in their current state of residence and none other. Previous trackand-field experience is preferred but not mandatory.
Training in martial arts is highly recommended.
Today is July 16. It’s been four weeks since Blazewrath tryouts officially began. Now they’re finally coming to Florida. Puerto Rico’s former Runner, Brian Santana, got kicked off the team back in April. Getting fired is bad enough, but getting fired before your country plays for the first time ever? I would’ve cried. Thankfully, Brian’s firing led to a broader search for his replacement, this time including Puerto Ricans living in the States. I’d switched from lamenting the loss of my country’s Runner to celebrating the chance to take his place.
I don’t have the “highly recommended” martial arts training, unless watching YouTube videos and hitting imaginary rivals in my bedroom counts. I used to be on my middle school’s track-and-field team, but my grades started slipping, so Mom told me to focus on studying instead. Hopefully I’m still fast enough to impress the International Blazewrath Federation.
There’s a knock on my door.
“Lana, are you all set?” Mom asks. “I need help with the wrapping paper.”
“Just a sec!” Thank God the door is locked. The ruby-red shirt and faded denim jeans I’ll be wearing to hide my sporty clothes are still laid out next to my tryout documents.
“Okay. I’ll be downstairs.” Mom’s footsteps echo across the hall.
Even though the coast is clear, I rush to put on my shirt and jeans. My brown hair flops all over the place, but after a few frantic brushes, I wrangle it into a decent ponytail. I slip on my black-and-white Adidas sneakers, the ones I run in every morning. Mom’s used to seeing me in them, so she won’t find it suspicious I’m wearing them to celebrate my cousin Todd’s birthday. Besides, we’re taking him to a wand shop. No need to whip out the stilettos and fringe.
I do a quick pirouette once I’m dressed. My meeting with the International Blazewrath Federation is in a mere five hours. Today I might become the new Runner for Team Puerto Rico. I might get picked to rep my beautiful island. The island I haven’t visited in twelve years.
My smile fades. Twelve years is too long to spend away from home. The place where I became myself. Before my Puerto Rican father and my white American mother divorced, we’d lived in the mountains of Cayey. I would dash around our two-story house, its walls decorated in cracked coral paint, pretending to chase after dragons with Papi. He’d let me guide him through the endless greenery outside and the sloping, pothole-ridden roads. Our neighbors would catch me with notepads and purple pens, jotting down clues that would take me to the dragons’ lair.
There hadn’t been Sol de Noche dragons in Puerto Rico then. There was just a father and his only child, their feet running as fast as their imaginations.
Our imaginations were never as exciting as Blazewrath.
The Cup takes place in a different country every two years. I was only four when Papi let me watch my first tournament. He rearranged the furniture in our too-hot living room, barefoot and belting ’80s rock songs, the windows open and the ceiling fan blasting. He demonstrated in theatrical lunges what the Runner has to do on the mountain and explained the offensive tactics each team’s dragons could do. Two things engraved themselves in my heart:
The way my father’s face lit up whenever a match started.
And how I desperately craved to be part of the matches myself.
Puerto Rico made me who I am, but Blazewrath is the reason I was born. It’s my purpose in a life without my island. A life without my father, who’s currently living in Brazil. He doesn’t know I’m trying out. If I get picked for Team Puerto Rico, it’ll be the best surprise of his life. If nothing happens, he’ll never know what a disappointment I was to us both.
I grab the Whisperer on my dresser. It looks like a red sports watch and fits my wrist like a charm. I press the silver adjust button. “Samira? Can you hear me?”
“Affirmative! What’s up?” she says. Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” blasts in the background. This Whisperer has way better sound than my phone. Thanks to magic, it lets me communicate with anyone from anywhere.
I’m not a witch, but being best friends with one has its perks.
“Just wanted to make sure the private wand-making tour is still happening,” I say.
“Yup. I called the store again to confirm. I’ll distract everyone while you sneak out for Blazewrath tryouts. I’ve already left my car in the store parking lot, so I’ll slip you my keys. Then you act your booty off to convince your mom you’re sick and can sit the private tour out.”
I’m smiling wide again. “I owe you big time, Samira.”
“Make it onto the team. Or you could let me Transport to your house.”
“You’re not setting yourself on fire today.”
She gives me one of her Olympic gold medal–winning sighs. “That fire doesn’t actually burn, Lana. Stop being extra. Also, I can get rid of it faster than before.”
Now I’m the one who sighs. Samira’s a great BFF, but when it comes to being a great witch, she’s still a work in progress. She’s not magically strong enough to perform complex spells, including the Transport Charm, which moves anything from one place to another. Her original plan was to Transport me straight to the Ritz-Carlton, but the last time she tried the spell, I was caged in blue flames for two hours. The flames didn’t hurt me, but two hours? Come on. And since Mom’s an OB/GYN, she’s always on call from the hospital. Her car is off-limits.
Not that she’d ever lend it to me for this.
“We stick to my mother picking you up,” I say. “It’s a lot safer.”
“Fine. Let’s do it your boring way.” I can picture her pouting in disappointment.
“See you in an hour, captain. Again, I owe you.”
“How about you admit Law & Order is the best show on television?”
Ugh, not this nonsense again. “Goodbye, Samira.”
I tuck the tryout documents into my Wonder Woman backpack. It has this vintage-looking gold metal badge on it, which is shaped like the W on Diana’s uniform. It makes me want to punch bad guys. Besides, Papi bought it for me last Christmas, so it’ll give me some luck.
My phone’s wallpaper fills the lock screen. It’s a picture of Takeshi Endo, my favorite Blazewrath player. Two years ago, a fifteen-year-old Takeshi had been ready to represent Japan for the second time as his team’s Striker. This photo is from a shoot without Hikaru, his dragon steed. He’s in a brightly lit studio, wearing a simple white T-shirt and skinny jeans as black as his slicked-back hair. One of his sleeves is rolled up, exposing a lean bicep.
He’s been missing for two years. No one has seen him since Hikaru’s murder.
“Wish me luck, Takeshi.”
I tuck my phone into my backpack and head down to the living room, where six different gift boxes, ranging from cufflinks small to dress shirt medium, have been dumped onto the velvet suede couch. The ivory wrapping paper remains untouched on top of my cousin’s gifts.
I spot Mom near the TV. Leslie Anne Wells, the willowy Amazon in blue heels, with a couple of gray streaks in her brown hair. That’s all I got from her. While she has her former ballerina poise and physique, I’m the proud owner of hips that could knock anyone out. My deep-brown skin wins me at least one look of confusion from strangers whenever I’m out with her. Like I can’t be related to her because she’s white. Sometimes I ignore it, even though I’m holding in swear words. Other times I throw knives with my glare and make them just as uncomfortable as I am.
Success rate for the latter is still at 100 percent.
Mom clutches the belt on her denim shirtdress. The words Breaking News appear along the screen with the photo of a man who’s not really a man at all.
Silver scales cover his face. His whole body is made of them, but he hides them underneath a black leather trench coat and matching leather gloves. His eyes flash a bright bloodred at a surveillance camera. And he’s grinning.
This is the man who was once a dragon. A Fire Drake from England, to be exact. His former rider, one of the few wizards to have a dragon steed, cursed him into human form. The curse stripped him of the claws that ripped hundreds of spines apart, of the fire that scorched innocents around the world. Twenty years have passed since the Sire’s rider sacrificed himself to cast the blood curse. Twenty years of peace… until three weeks ago, when the Sire came out of hiding, broke into a dragon sanctuary in Athens, and fled with a Hydra.
“What’s the Sire up to now?” I ask.
Mom dives for the remote control. I’ve never seen anyone turn off a TV that fast. “Another attack at a dragon sanctuary. There seems to be a new one every week.”
I shudder. The Sire and his Dragon Knights, the fanatical followers who serve him, have been setting dragons free all over Europe. They’ll probably move along to other continents soon.
What if he goes to Dubai? Sixteen teams are already at this year’s host city for the Cup. Could the Sire’s antics force the IBF to cancel it as a safety measure?
I need the Cup to happen. I’ve waited thirteen years for this shot at glory, at a taste of home. I can’t wait a second longer.
“What’s happening in that mind of yours, Lana?”
I clear my throat, fishing my phone out of my jeans’ pocket. “Just thinking about Papi and how he’s dealing with all this sanctuary drama. Let me check on him.” Papi doesn’t own a Whisperer, so it’s normal phone calls for him. Thank God the time difference between Florida and São Paulo is only one hour.
The phone rings once, twice, ten billion times.
Papi doesn’t answer.
I hang up and try again. He still doesn’t answer. “Why isn’t he picking up?”
“He could be in a meeting,” Mom says as I shoot him a text to call me ASAP. “Carlos is better off than most of us, anyway.” Mom sulks as she walks over to the gifts. “I told you both, didn’t I? You can never trust something that much bigger than you with a will of its own.”
I heave a sigh. “The Sire is a terrorist, Mom. He chooses to be this vile. Dragons aren’t treacherous and terrible by nature.”
Mom’s hardened gaze flickers over to me. “And yet one tried to kill my daughter.”
My groan could rattle walls. That happened when I was five years old. Papi had been a dragon-studies professor in Puerto Rico. São Paulo invited him to help with the adaptation process of the sanctuary’s latest rescue, a female Pesadelo. She had been Un-Bonded, though. Un-Bonded dragons are born without forming a psychic and emotional connection, known as a Bond, with a human rider. They consider humans a threat. Sometimes even food.
I remember Mom’s screams as she watched from the other side of the spell-protected glass. Sometimes I hear them in my sleep. She might hear them, too. She’s so concerned with monsters that she never noticed that her daughter survived a dragon attack with her little five-year-old legs. A daughter who realized on that fateful night she has what it takes to compete in the Cup. Maybe even win. All I needed was a team from my place of birth to be eligible for tryouts.
All I needed was the chance my mother would never give me.
“That was a long time ago,” I tell her, “and it had been my fault.”
“Please don’t defend the indefensible.” Mom glowers. “Dragons are capable of horrendous acts of violence. The Sire is proof of this.”
“So are his Dragon Knights, who are humans.”
“I’m not going to fight with you. Please help me wrap these gifts. We don’t want to be late to pick up Samira and Todd.” Mom swiftly takes the medium box and the wrapping paper to the dining-room table, where red scissors and tape await.
I swallow my cutting retort. She refuses to change her mind about dragons. She won’t let me play Blazewrath. She won’t care that the Sire could snatch my dream away. Tears fill my eyes. I turn around and wipe them away before Mom notices. It kills me not to have her support, but this is what life has been like for the past twelve years. She’ll never change. Neither will I.
Maybe those staring strangers on the street are right. We shouldn’t be related.
Something explodes behind me.
I jump back with flailing arms. Mom’s screaming like it’s the End of Days.
“Don’t panic, people! I got this!” Samira Jones, BFF extraordinaire, stands in my dining room wrapped in blue flames. There’s a halo around her puffy high bun. She looks like a Black angel trapped in burning spray paint. Samira whips out her wand, a copper rod with amethyst crystals on the sides, and aims a silent spell at the kitchen sink. Water glides out of the faucet in a straight line. It strikes the flames from the top of Samira’s head to her camel-colored Nikes.
The fire coils inward, flickering like dying stars, then vanishes.
After she sends the water back to the faucet, Samira’s eyes find mine. She’s beaming as if she’s won a billion bucks. She’s about to say something when there’s a soft snap.
The upper half of her wand tumbles to the floor.
Samira frowns. “Surprise… ”
Excerpted from Blazewrath Games, copyright 2020 by Amparo Ortiz.
Amparo Ortiz was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and currently lives on the island’s northeastern coast. Her short story comic, “What Remains in The Dark,” appears in the Eisner Award-winning anthology Puerto Rico Strong (Lion Forge, 2018), and Saving Chupie, her middle grade graphic novel, comes out with HarperCollins in Winter 2022. She holds an M.A. in English and a B.A. in Psychology from the UPR’s Río Piedras campus. When she’s not teaching ESL to her college students, she’s teaching herself Korean, devouring as much young adult fiction as she can, and writing about Latinx characters in worlds both contemporary and fantastical.
Based in Bogotá, Colombia, cover artist Carolina Rodríguez Fuenmayor loved animé, manga and video game art as she grew up, later discovering the artwork of James Jean, Andrew Hem and Fuco Euda, who have been key influences on her career and style. She loves vinyl records and bands like Placebo, Mew and Mars Volta, and studied Visual Arts with a focus on Graphic Art in Bogotá, achieving a master’s degree. Find her on Instagram @alterlier.