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Diana’s Dragons: The Awaited

By J.R. Schumaker

Chapter One

The Awaited

Diana took the back stairs two at a time. Pops and sizzles from her brother’s video game chased her out the kitchen door and into the yard. Only where the yard gave way to wild canyon grass did birdsong begin to replace the unnatural blasts in her ears. She ran up the hill through the low brush, zigzagging as usual to avoid beating a path to her hideaway. She clutched the crystal around her neck; it felt warm, like a breath on her throat. Diana’s heart raced as she lifted the cord, holding the amulet up to the sun. A smoky haze swirled within. Only one thing could awaken the mistcrystal. The dragons: they were back.

Her mistcrystal pulled her onward. She rounded the hill and spotted the oak that sheltered the front of her hideaway. The cave faced a gully full of stones and brush that for part of the year also contained a trickling stream. It had been a wet spring, so the rivulet was deep enough to soak Diana’s purple high-tops. She avoided the water and the budding branches and then pulled the elucifier, an odd but invaluable object, from one of her many pockets. Diana shook it gently until it emitted its strange wavelength, then shined the light into the chasm, giving the air inside an apricot glow, like an impossible layer of daylight over the dark. The entrance was low, so she had to duck to enter. A grown dragon—the size of a condor—could enter with ease.

Diana’s stomach fluttered as fast as her heartbeat. She aimed the beam at the ground as she entered the cavern. It was all she could do to move slowly. She was sure they were here. But were they her dragons? Well, any dragons were welcome. As the splay of light reached the far end of the cave, Diana clamped her hand over her mouth, stifling the urge to cry out. A form was perched on the earthen shelf. She reached for the cave wall to steady herself, felt the chalky rock scratch against her fingertips, and released a sigh she had held since the day her father and Clarin gave her the crystal and disappeared.

Careful not to shine the light near zir head, she ran the beam up and down the body. The sleeping dragon was unmistakable now, even in zir present slump. The slick blue told her ze was a sea. Ze slept with zir head in a tuck. A rock shifted under Diana’s feet and the creature startled, moving enough to reveal a second creature in the wake of the elucifier’s light. A pair! Diana thought her heart would fly out of her chest. Her hand shook so much she nearly dropped the elucifier. She advanced slowly and trained the light on the second dragon, a terra, golden brown and shining, with zir head, too, in a tuck.

Diana sucked in her breath. It could not be a coincidence. A sea and a terra…a sea and a terra! The words skipped around her mind like happy children playing at recess. Her mistcrystal was fully awake now; it felt like a second, irregular pulse on Diana’s throat. Raising the crystal again to her eyes, she watched the amber fog continue its dance, the mist curling like smoke inside the quivering stone. She blinked back tears. Time stopped as she sat with the sleeping dragons and gripped her pendant, everything that mattered contained in the smoky waltz’s uneven tempo of hope.

Diana shook herself back to reality. Were these really her dragons? How could they not be? She did not dare wake them. Who knew what had driven dragons to sleep during daylight?

Diana checked her watch: 9:00 a.m. There was no way to know when they would awaken. She backed out of the space with ginger steps, squinting in the sunlight. Instinctively, she grasped the mistcrystal, feeling it cool a bit as she exited the cave. Pacing between the entrance and a huge boulder, she pulled out her phone and dialed her best friend.

“Hi Diana,” Nicki answered the phone quietly. They always managed to sound like they were in a library. “How’s it go—?”

Diana broke in before Nicki could finish their sentence. “They’re back—two of them!”

Nicki gasped, “Oh, my gosh! Which ones? Where are you?”

“At the hideaway—how fast can you get over here?”

“I’ll come right now—what do they need? What are they doing?”

“They’re asleep. I’m sure they’ll be hungry. Oh, and hang by the entrance—what if we are strangers? We don’t want to scare them.”

“OK, no problem. I’ve got walnuts and bananas. Worms, hmmm…I’ll check the compost bin. I’ll be there in 15 minutes,” Nicki said, then their tone softened. “What about your dad?”

“No, no sign of him,” Diana replied, voice shaking slightly. They fell silent. Diana felt a lump in her throat. She took a step away from the mouth of the cave and continued, “But I don’t know anything, yet. I don’t even know if it’s Clarin and Shay, let alone anything about my dad.”

“Yeah, oh, wow. Well…” Nicki’s voice trailed off to almost nothing.

“I’m gonna call my mom, then I’m going back inside until they wake up.” The best friends hung up.

Diana took a deep breath before calling home. Her mom answered after the three longest rings ever.

“Mom, they’re back,” Diana said in a choked whisper. “The dragons. They made it!”

“Oh, my gosh! I can’t believe it. Oh, my…where are they? Are they all right?” Her mom’s voice rang out an octave higher than usual.

“They’re at the hideaway. They seem fine. They’re asleep.” Diana bent and peeked into the cave, though it was pointless to try to see through the black.

Her mother sighed and then continued, “And your father—anything?”

“No…no…sorry, Mom,” Diana’s voice cracked. “No sign.”

“OK,” her mother was barely audible. Then she perked up, “How many are there? Is it them?”

Diana whispered, “Two of them–a terra and a sea. It has to be…I mean…I bet it’s them…” She paused and then added, “but I can’t tell yet. And I won’t wake them up.”

“It must be them.” Her mother sounded wistful. Silence filled the line. Then her mother spoke up again, “I’ll be right there—”

“Not yet, Mom,” Diana answered, “Nicki is on the way with some food. We’re OK.”

“All right, honey; yes, yes, the two of you are plenty right now. Those poor dragons…” her voice shrank. “What must they have gone through?” She sounded very far away to Diana. Then the familiar focus came back into her mom’s tone, “Well, let me know the second you know anything. And check in soon, OK?”

“I will, Mom.” Diana was about to hang up, then burst out with the plea, “Mom! Don’t tell Brody yet!”

Linda Santos chuckled, “I gave your brother extra time on his video game; if he looks up, I promise, not a word.”

Diana double-checked that her phone was on vibrate and stooped back into the cave. As she moved toward the back, she felt a tell-tale increase in heat and motion on her throat. Her heart told her the terra was Clarin. Why else would the mistcrystal enliven so much? After all, it was Clarin’s very first breath captured in the stone.

Diana swept at some dust on the low stool she kept in the hideaway and sat watching the dragons for a few minutes. She thought back to the time when her father had first found her in here, alone and crying, after the raven she had tried to nurse to health died. She hadn’t even gotten in trouble for running off, though her parents insisted on rules and precautions for her spelunking from then on. Diana slid the edge of the elucifier beam along the sea’s body. She couldn’t get a good look at the dragon from the position in which ze slept, and she didn’t dare disturb zir.

Diana pulled out her phone; Nicki was texting her. They had the food and wanted to know if they should stop at Diana’s house and bring a carrier. Diana texted back: “Yes, thanks. Don’t let my brother see.” Diana sat motionless. She flicked her wrist to turn off the ‘luce, then shook it right back on. The darkness was too dark. She held the beam beneath the two dragons and sat for one sixty-second eternity after another. Finally, she saw movement.

It was the terra. Diana could barely contain herself. Just chill! she thought. She leaned past the sleeping sea, gazing at the terra, who was slowly raising zir head. The mistcrystal had never been so active. Diana wanted to make sure it was the first thing the dragon saw, in case ze was not Clarin, though any terra would feel the presence of the mistcrystal before seeing it. Diana had one hundred times the butterflies she used to get on Christmas Eve, when she just knew what she most wished for was under the tree.

The brown dragon opened zir eyes. As if ze had already seen Diana behind closed lids, their gazes met at once. Diana’s heart leapt and her smile felt too wide to be contained in the small space. It was Clarin! Zir tawny eyes reached for Diana. Dragons smile with the shape of zir eyes, and Diana was drawn into Clarin’s, feeling two tiny suns beaming at her. She came close and reached out to touch Clarin’s snout. Diana dared not speak, for fear of awakening the sea, who, she was sure now, was Clarin’s mate, Shay.

Diana scooted a little closer, kneeling past Shay to touch Clarin’s talon. Clarin responded by pressing zir snout to Diana’s hand. The dragon’s touch felt like a summer day condensed into a moment.

Diana whispered, “How are you? I missed you so much.” Clarin continued to smile, but, oddly, zir thoughts remained silent. “Why can’t I hear your thoughts?” Diana asked aloud. Clarin bent zir head toward a grassy mound between zirself and zir sleeping mate; and Diana leaned forward and directed the barest glimmer of the light from the elucifier at the grass. Through the soft brown and green, she caught a tiny glimpse of iridescence. It took only a moment to register: “You laid eggs!” Diana burst out. She pulled the light off the pile; it was a gut reaction—the ‘luce couldn’t hurt the eggs.

Clarin’s whole body sat up taller, eyes shining. Diana sucked in her breath, then managed to tumble out, “Oh wow, wow…that’s why…” Diana knew from the Missive that dragon parents lost many of their powers while nesting and brooding. With her head floating in a cloud of wonder, Diana dared, under Clarin’s approving nod, to brush away a little bit of grass until she saw the radiant shells in pulsating colors: a nest full of eggs of the four dragon natures.

The eggs were a little bigger than golf balls and nearly as round. The shells of all but one kind were extraordinarily hard, their surfaces pearly and luminescent. The nature of the dragonling within was foretold by the color of its shell—terra: deep shining gold encased in patches of rich brown, like polished gold ore still surrounded by earth; sea: cerulean blue with shimmering, silvery waves; sun: deep rose with fiery yellow swirls; and ghost: pure, ethereal white. Ghost shells were the thinnest. In the dark, their translucence revealed the luminous outline of the growing hatchling.

A wave of disbelief overtook Diana. It was all hitting her at once. She hunched down on the stool and placed her face in her hands, feeling at any second she would either laugh or cry. The sound of movement on the ledge snapped her out of her reverie, and she looked up to see Shay looking at her, zir eyes smiling through zir exhaustion. From Clarin’s mistcrystal flooded strange, warm feelings; Diana suddenly felt as though she had known Shay forever. They looked at one another for what seemed like minutes, Diana taking in Shay’s deep eyes, feeling as if she’d grown up seeing them her whole life, and at the same time wondering how blue could be so blue. She reached for zir snout and zir warm nuzzle sank into her skin, as the reality that the dragons were home sank into her heart.

Shay turned toward the nest. With great effort, ze drew zirself up as if to present the eggs. Diana smiled knowingly and told the proud parent, “Yes, I’ve seen. They’re beautiful, Shay.” Then the dragon slumped back, succumbing to zir fatigue.

A text from Nicki caused the phone in Diana’s pocket to buzz: Nicki was outside the cave. Diana told the dragons, “My best friend is here with some food for you. Be right back.” Both dragons nodded, their eyes relaxing gratefully. Diana sighed. They would eat. They would be safe. It was all going to be OK. They were home.

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