Dragon Avenger Page 1

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BOOK ONE

Hatchling

BETTER SEVEN RAGING DRAGONS AS YOUR

ENEMY THAN A SINGLE PATIENT DRAGONELLE.

—Islebreadth

Chapter 1

The cloudscapes and air currents, so pleasant to drift across, darkened. Her glittering green scales turned dull and slag. A vast black mass rolled overhead.

Thunder hit her ears, pounding thunder, relentless, unnaturally regular, pursuing her like hoofbeats.

She tipped her wings, dropped, tried to flee the storm, but the darkness overtook her. The feathery dimpling of the clouds below disappeared, replaced by a wet mist of confusion . . . suffocation. The darkness shot down her nostrils and into her lungs.

Out, out of this weather!

She tried to straighten her neck, form her body into an arrow, to dive out of the storm and take shelter, but her limbs wouldn’t cooperate. She twitched, confused, fighting, unwilling to draw a breath of the storm’s thick air.

Crack!

Am I lightning-struck? she thought.

Then the air came and she breathed, a gasp that infused her with new life, her limbs with strength. The mists faded, except for the booming thunder; she realized the noise in her ears was her own hearts. No clouds, no storm, no choking mists, just cramp and wet and a maddening irritation like insects biting under her scales.

She twisted, stretched, as though each of her four limbs, neck, and tail were in a contest to get farthest away from the others, and then the world gave way—

—and she found herself on her side. Terror struck. My belly is exposed! and she fought to roll. Then her nostrils smelled it, a rich musky scent that set her at ease. Something sharper in the background, blood . . .

Blood! The smell of appetite and danger.

Dimpled, irregular surfaces all around, but hard and dark, quite the opposite of the clouds, an agonized squeaking near her . . .

Come out Wistala, or Auron will have your breakegg meal.

I am Wistala.

She rolled her eye, tried to raise her sii, her tail, but instead of coiling ropes of muscle that could fell young trees, she saw stubby deformities trapped in bits of viscous-sided egg clinging to her like a net. Next to her, another green face, pale-pink fringe rising from her skull-ridge and folded this way and that as it descended along the neck. Her sister had her own problems: a head hardly out of her egg.

Too hard, Momma. I-Jizara cannot get out. The thought-words confused Wistala. Had they come from her? No, from the other green hatchling still trapped in her egg.

Jizara, Wistala, you must come out of your eggs. This is your first test, and you’ll learn a valuable lesson. In any crisis, the first scale you must bite through is your own. Master your spirit, apply your mind, harness your body—then you will be able to break through difficulty.

Mother, big enough to be a world herself, rested against a curving wall of stone. She could not be taken in with a single glance. Wistala had to assemble her out of impressions: her endless tail, deep rushing heartbeat, mountainous haunches, softly whooshing breaths, folded wings, arching neck, elegantly fringed head with its shining golden-yellow eyes cut by deep black slits. A loving prrum started deep within Mother’s throat, a drum-roll encouraging her daughters.

Wistala quit trying to go in six directions at once. She employed all four limbs and her tail to get out of the confining egg.

Tch-crick-crack!

And she was away from it.

But down again.

Her rear legs couldn’t get purchase. A wet mass that wasn’t quite her and wasn’t quite egg, attached at her underside, entangled newly uncurled toes. She let out a frustrated squawk.

She dragged herself, wanting that blood-smell, using her cleared front legs, pulling foul anchor and bits of eggshell.

Wistala, how strong you are! Mother thought.

The smell also meant death. She saw a red-scaled hatchling lying dead on its side, blood still trickling from its torn throat and stomach, brief life over already.

She knocked an empty broken egg out of her way, freed one hind leg. She could see more of the cavern now. Her mother rested on a ledge halfway up the side of the highest part; the rest was like a dragon’s muzzle, narrowing with teeth in the form of dripping stones meeting, though in a haphazard fashion when compared with a dragon’s regular rows.

Something moved at the edge of the precipice, and it took her a moment to recognize it as another hatchling. With its head down over the edge and its gray, black-shadowed skin, her sibling resembled a heap of oddly shaped stone.

It had no scales. A moment later she got a mind-picture of a mighty grown gray dragon flying over a mountain that hugged ice between its vast arms—some dream out of the past or from her brother’s future?

Her sibling turned on her, baleful red eyes under his shieldlike eye crest wild and staring. He cocked his head at her and tested the air with his tongue. With that, he strode up to the corpse as though he owned the shelf and dug at the succulent fresh flesh.

The fire left his eyes.

If he thought anything of, or at, her, she could not tell.

Help, Momma, please help, her sister thought.

Wistala wanted a mouthful of that feast, but suppose the gray hatchling objected? She looked behind, saw her sister still struggling against her egg. Jizara had managed to get her head and neck out, thanks to the sharp prong on her snout—why, I have one, too—but hadn’t so much as cracked through with her back.

Too hard!

Wistala turned, slipped on the drogue still attached to her belly, and pushed herself clumsily sideways, still learning what her legs could and couldn’t do, until she stood alongside her sister.

Come, Jizara, come with me to the blood-smell! A fine feast is disappearing down our brother’s throat.

Jizara gave a dispirited peep, managed to break a little more eggshell with her neck. At this rate, nothing would be left!

Wistala felt her tail whipping back and forth, seemingly in a nasty mood of its own. She redirected it, and struck the side of her sister’s egg—hard.

The egg cracked.

After that first opening, it was easy. Three sharp blows, and the whole side of the egg clung together, thanks only to a thin translucent membrane beneath. Her sister broke free, lay gasping and squeaking with the effort.

I see what you mean about the smell, her sister thought.

Jizara slunk forward, unable even to raise her forequarters and neck off the ground. The mass of broken egg still wrapped half her scrawny long-necked body.

Can you open your mouth?

Yes, her sister thought back.

Then hang on to my tail.

She felt the prick of tiny sharp teeth biting through the hardly-there scales. Using her forelegs and the untangled rear, Wistala pulled her sister free and toward the meal.

Her brother raised a blood-smeared snout, egg horn trailing bits of viscera, and cocked his head in that funny way of his. He let out a satisfied gassy noise that echoed off the egg shelf wall and trotted down to a trickle of water running down the side of the cavern wall. Wistala followed its musical path to a pool at the base, which was rimmed with thick growths of blue-green lichen. The lichen glowed like her brother’s eyes, but in a far more soothing fashion.

But he left the feast to them.

Wistala tore into it. Better than any dream of flying, the smells and tastes and textures of meat transmitted by her own buds and nerves made the confusion of her hatching fade. The odd sensation of rended flesh sliding down her throat and the pleasant sensation of a filling belly mattered.

A coppery flash and blazing eyes landed atop the corpse. This hatchling held a bleeding forelimb tight to its narrow chest.

Wistala slid next to her sister, tripping on the cursed thing hanging from her belly, and the closing jaws of the copper just missed the air where her nose had been a moment ago.

She flattened herself against the rock, instinctively covering her vulnerable spots. The copper hatchling pounced on her sister, claws and teeth searing as it tried to drive her away from the meal Jizara was too weak to abandon.

Help, Mother! Wistala didn’t know if the call came from one, both, or all three of them.

Wistala let out a challenge, but the battle cry of her dreams came out as a thin peep. It still startled the copper into turning.

It was fast, even with its wounded leg, and didn’t have the wretched umbilical sac slowing and tripping it. She put her head down and butted him as hard as body mass allowed.

At least he left off attacking Jizara.

He opened his mouth, glaring at her from behind rows of teeth, and every instinct told her to retreat. Her back end showed its strange tendency to act of its own accord, and she backpedaled—but she showed her own teeth, giving as good as the copper had done.

He turned his head, grabbed a piece of the carcass’s tail, and ran.

Her feeling of triumph vanished as her gray brother bounded up, coiling and uncoiling his body in a way Wistala envied, covering ground in a run that was more a series of elastic leaps than footwork.

The copper scrambled off the egg shelf, clutching his meal.

Her scaleless brother screeched down at his opponent, long tail lashing back and forth so that it threatened to catch her across the nose. When he returned to the feast, he sniffed at Jizara’s neck—What would she do if the gray male tried to make a meal of Jizara?

Wistala extended her neck—not so long as either of her siblings’—and began to lick her sister’s wound.

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