Chapter One: Mianth the Skinny

The tiny magenta-purple dragon hung from a slender tree branch by its tail, its mesmerizing amber eyes staring in Lyric Grimmet’s teal ones. A pink tongue flicked out of its mouth as it hissed, “Ssso you’re a human? One hundred percent actual human? I’ve heard ssscary thingsss about you guysss.”

Lyric silently cursed herself for being so stupid. How many times had her father warned her about coming out of hiding? Never leave the safety of the cave, he had told her. Dragons rule the top world.

And yet here she was, out of the cave for not even five minutes for some air, and she had already encountered a dragon. A stick-thin dragon as long as her forearm, but still a dragon. It probably unhinged its jaw to devour its victims .

The dragon’s tongue flickered again, and it swung off the branch, beating its paper-thin wings frantically to keep it in the air. “Can you hear me, human?” it asked. “Or are you jussst ssstupid?”

“I’ve heard scary things about your kind, too. I’ve heard that you’re all sick,” she spat.

The dragon cackled squeakily. “Sssick? I’m not sssick, I’m twisssted. Sssick makesss it sssound like there’sss a cure.”

Lyric thought quickly. If she made a run for the cave, the dragon would find it, and it would likely bring allies. She’d have to talk to it until it got bored with her and flew away. “I’m, uh, Lyric Grimmet,” she stammered. “Who are you?”

It flapped nearer to her, then coughed, sending out a little spout of flame that singed her eyebrows. It clamped a minuscule clawed paw over its fanged mouth. “Sssorry. I” — and he puffed out his chest, trying to look impressive — “am Mianth the Dragonlord, peasssant.”

Lyric arched her eyebrows. “Dragonlord? That’s your real name?” she asked, disbelieving. Could such a tiny thing really be a Dragonlord? They were of great importance in the dragon kingdom.

Mianth blushed, his magenta cheeks flushing bubblegum-pink. “Mianth the Ssskinny is my given name, but it’sss hardly frightening.” He landed on Lyric’s pale shoulder and curled around her neck like a scarf. “You ssseee, Lyric Grimmet, I am in need of a human.”

She tensed. What did a dragon want with a human girl? Did he intend to serve her for dessert at a banquet? But she couldn’t show Mianth that she was afraid, so she inquired coolly, “How may I be off assistance, Mianth the Skinny?”

Dragonlord!” he snarled in her ear. Mianth cleared his throat and explained, “Mianth the Dragonlord needsss you to activate a photograph.”

Lyric truly had no idea what that meant — how did you activate a photograph? — but she had an idea. “If I help you, will you leave me alone?” She crossed her fingers behind her back for good luck.

Mianth bared his tiny, razor-sharp teeth and nodded. “I sssuppossse.” He sprang off her shoulder and wobbled away through the air. “Follow me,” he called, and Lyric set off after him at a trot.

Mianth led her to an enormous fallen tree. They entered its hollow trunk through a gap in the exposed roots. It was dim inside, and filled with an earthy smell.

Large photos hung on the sides of the trunk. The first was of a small man — smaller than even Mianth — standing on a tiny ladder to see through a camera.

Mianth rattled on as they walked through the tree. “You sssee, Ator the Dragonking hasss made a deal with me. If I retrieve an important object from one of thessse picturesss, he will grant me the title of Dragonlord. But the photosss only allow you in with the touch of a human. That isss why I need you.”

He paused in front of picture, hovering. “How about thisss one?”

Lyric froze when she saw the eerie picture. A lone soldier, with a gun strapped to his back, stood over a piano. His fingers pressed the keys, playing a melody she couldn’t hear. “No,” she said forcefully, and marched down the trunk.

Mianth whimpered after her, “It was jussst a sssugessstion . . .”

Lyric didn’t want to admit aloud why she didn’t like the photograph. It was because it was of her father, at her mother’s funeral. He was the only one who had come, so he had buried her himself, and played her favorite song on her piano.

After walking for a minute longer, Lyric stopped in front of a black and white photo. A shirtless boy lay on a beach, and the rope around his wrists was attached to a chain. She reached forward and let her fingertips graze the picture. It started to glow, and the blinding white light enveloped Lyric and the dragon.

The photo spit them out on a dirty beach, with a cold, damp wind whistling around them. Her eyes flitted along the shore until they settled on the boy lying motionless in the surf. She dashed over to him and knelt by his side.

Mianth struggled over to her, the wind tossing him back and forth. “Let’sss — go,” he panted, settling on her shoulder. “Leave him! We musst find Dragonking Ator’sss object –“

Lyric brushed the pestering dragon off her shoulder. She shook the boy urgently. “Wake up . . . Wake up!”

Impatient, Mianth puffed a flicker of flame straight into the boy’s tanned face. He lurched onto his side, moaning.

Lyric sighed with relief. “You’re awake!” she cried joyously.

The boy blinked at her groggily with dark green eyes. “Who are you?” he asked, offering her his bound hands to untie.

“Lyric Grimmet,” she smiled, carefully undoing the knots. She gestured to Mianth, who was perched on top of her head. He was kneading her long, wavy black hair with his sharp talons. “This is Mianth the Skinny. Don’t worry, he’s friendly.”

The boy rubbed his raw wrists. “I’m Ethan. Thanks for untying me.” He brushed the light brown hair off his forehead; little bits of sand rained down. “Slave traders,” he muttered darkly. “They left me there. Said I was too weak to fetch a high price at the market.” In disgust, he spit into the surf.

“I’m so sorry,” Lyric murmured, staring at the foamy waves lapping around her legs. She wasn’t sure which was worse — hiding from dragons, or being a slave. She blurted, “Mianth wants to become a Dragonlord. He needs to find something in this world and bring it to Ator, the Dragonking. Mianth, what exactly are we looking for?”

Mianth puffed up and said with an air of importance, “At lassst, sssomeone remembersss me . . . We are looking for a rare ssshell, called the claw clam. It isss a clam . . . made of ancient dragon clawsss.” He glanced at the ocean and wrinkled his snout. “Water and dragonsss don’t mix . . . I’m afraid I mussst sssit thisss one out . . .”

Lyric jumped to her feet and snatched Mianth off the top of her head. “No way! This is your mission; you’re finding that clam. Got it?” She glared down at the irritating dragon in her hand. A gasp escaped her lips. He was limp, his head lolling.

Lyric placed him on top of the sand and nibbled her lip anxiously. “I think I broke him,” she whispered to Ethan.

Ethan cupped his hands, scooped up some ocean water, and dumped it on Mianth. The dragon sprang into the air, panting. “Nah, he’s fine.” He smirked at the disgruntled dragon. “Trying to get out of work, lizard?” Ethan turned to Lyric. “I’ll help you, as thanks for untying those ropes. Watch this.”

He reached into the pocket of his dripping shorts and produced a shimmering sand dollar. Ethan pressed it against his lips and whistled. A blast of salty wind hit Lyric in the face. Suddenly, she felt like she couldn’t breathe.

“Quick, into the water!” Ethan urged. He grabbed her by the arm and flopped into the waves, pulling her down with him.

The water rushed into her mouth, but instead of choking, she found that she was breathing fine.

Ethan grinned at her. “Mermaid tech,” he explained, his voice distorted, waving the sand dollar at her. “Lets you breathe underwater. The mers use it on prisoners, lovers, whatever.” He popped his head above the waves and blew at Mianth. A moment later, the dragon had joined them reluctantly.

The trio swam deeper into the sea, searching for a claw clam.

Chapter Two: Indra, Queen of the Mers

Colorful fish streaked past Mianth the Skinny, Lyric Grimmet, and Ethan as they swam down into the ocean. Beneath the aegean-blue surface, the sea came to life. A rainbow of plants and seashells and fish whirled all around them.

“This is amazing,” Lyric gasped. Swaying seaweed tickled her arms and a school of tiny orange fish zipped through her floating black hair.

Swimming ahead of her, Ethan nodded. “Yep,” he agreed as a shrill dolphin call pierced the magic around them.

“D-dolphinsss?!” Mianth squeaked. The tiny dragon bundled himself up in the drifting white fabric of Lyric’s too-big shirt. “Dolphinsss and ssskinny dragonsss do not mix. Dolphinsss are viciousss. Sssend it away!”

“It’s fine,” Ethan assured them. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the glimmering sand dollar that allowed them to breath under water. “This just has a time limit. The dolphin noise was a warning. It’ll go off every ten minutes.” He shifted through some shells lying on the sand while he talked, searching for Mianth’s claw clam. “The sand dollar lets you breathe underwater for one hundred minutes. Now that the warning had gone off once, we have ninety minutes left. Then it’ll wear off, and we won’t be able to breath down here anymore.”

They had reached the drop off. The reef ended abruptly, and Lyric couldn’t see the ocean floor through the dark water.

“We need to go down there,” Ethan said, pointing. “Claw clams like cold water and darkness. I know because the slave traders forced me to gather them.”

Lyric didn’t want to leave the safety of the reef. But according to Ethan, she’d have to if she wanted Mianth to find his clam so he’d leave her alone. She could feel the dragon trembling around her neck, where he was curled up like a choker necklace. Trying to act brave, she swam out over the drop off. Lyric immediately felt paranoid and exposed, unable to shake the idea that a huge shark might shoot up from the depths and eat her.

Ethan dove down into the darkness, and Lyric followed reluctantly. The water grew steadily colder until she was shivering, and the only bit of warmth was Mianth’s hot water bottle-body. She jumped at every little sound.

Soon, the ocean was so dark that she could barely see Ethan by her side. There was no way they could find the claw clam without a light. Seeming to sense what Lyric was thinking, Ethan took the sand dollar out of his pocket again. It was sending off little sparks of light into the gloom, lighting up the water around them.

Lyric almost screamed when she caught sight of a long eel slithering by them. Another cry nearly escaped when Ethan’s hand unexpectedly slipped into hers.

He tried to smile at her, but she saw the fear in his pine-green eyes. “I don’t want something to snatch you away,” he explained weakly, which didn’t comfort Lyric very much.

But as they traveled yet deeper, she was glad for the small bit of warmth that his hand provided.

They reached the ocean floor again five minutes later, just after the sand dollar beeped for the second time: eighty minutes left. The floor was nothing like the colorful and inhabited reef. Here, the sand was dotted with sharp, holey rocks, spider-like crabs, and the occasional weird plant that looked a bit like an anemone. There was no sign of a clam claw, and Lyric’s head was throbbing from the pressure.

“Ethan –”

His hand was suddenly torn from hers, and his yell echoed in her ears. A hand clamped around Lyric’s mouth, while an arm wrapped around her waist. She kicked and struggled against her attacker, but it was much stronger than her, and she was quickly worn out.

Something shivered against the back of her neck. Mianth. Her attacker hadn’t discovered him yet.

Something cut into her arm, and the only thing keeping her from screaming was the calloused hand over her mouth. Whatever was piercing her skin felt similar to the time she had stepped on a dragon tooth in the dark.

Suddenly woozy, a large, dark green tail came into her blurred vision before she blacked out.

* * *

Lyric woke up in a barred cell. Slumped against the wall, she ached all over. Her wrists hurt from the thick braids of seaweed around them. When her eyesight cleared, she saw Ethan leaning against the opposite wall. She gasped and stared at a circular wound on his shoulder, oozing blood into the water.

He smiled wearily and nodded at her arm.

Lyric glanced down at herself. Her left sleeve was stained a faded red. She rolled up the sleeve with her chin as a wave of dizziness swept over her. A matching wound was cut into her arm.

“Sedative,” Ethan muttered. “The mers aren’t very good at giving shots, are they?”

Sedatives. Mers. The words swam around inside her head. “Mermaids?” she croaked.

Ethan gestured at the bars on their cell. Two buff merman, one with a dark green tail, the other a deep red, patrolled the corridor. While Lyric and Ethan watched, the red one swam over to their door and inserted a key that looked like a razor clam shell into the lock. He grabbed Lyric roughly by the arm and dragged her out of the cell. The green merman seized Ethan and closed the door.

The merman led them down the hallway. They reached a soaring double door with seahorses and dolphins carved into it. A petite mermaid with a lavender tail and a strapless white top hurried over to them.

“How long ago did you blow on them?” she asked, peering at Lyric and Ethan with wonder.

“We didn’t,” the red merman grunted. “They had one on them.” A dolphin-call warning choose that moment to shriek from his shirt pocket. “Fifth time it’s beeped.”

Ethan and Lyric glanced at each other. It had beeped twice for them — twenty minutes gone — and five times for the guards — seventy minutes. They were running out of time.

“I’ll take them off your hands,” the mermaid promised. Lyric and Ethan were thrust toward her, as well as the sand dollar. “I’m Delmara,” she told the children as the guards swam away. “Queen Indra has summoned you.” She tucked her long golden hair behind her ears, straightened Lyric’s shirt, and tsked at Ethan. Then she shoved open the doors and lead the captives inside.

Lyric was greeted by a wall of seaweed, stretching all the way up to the domed ceiling. The swirling blue-green floor was made of abalone.

Delmara parted the seaweed to reveal the throne.

Lyric pulled at her shirt and whispered, “It’s hot.” It felt like a hot tub.

The mermaid nodded. “It has to be, to hide her ice-cold heart of stone.” She ushered them through the seaweed and made them bow before the queen.

Queen Indra was intimidating. Her dark brown hair was twisted into an elaborate knot atop her head. Her eyes, the same blue-gray as her tail, were critical. Her face was stern but beautiful.

“Who are you?” Her voice was deep and rich.

Lyric tried to answer, but the words wouldn’t come. Thankfully, Ethan stepped forward and said, “Queen Indra, I am Ethan Bradley, and this is Lyric Grimmet.”

She leaned forward in her throne. It was the color of sand, decorated with shells and starfish and other treasures of the ocean. “What brings you to my kingdom, young humans? This is not your domain.”

Ethan snorted. “Your guards brought us here.” As an afterthought, he added, “Your Highness.”

“What Ethan means, Queen Indra,” Lyric blurted, glaring at Ethan, “is that we were searching for a claw clam when your guards found us. We’re sorry to bother you.”

“A claw clam,” she murmured, her storm-gray eyes settling on Ethan. She rose from her throne and swam forward gracefully. Queen Indra untied their bonds, took their hands, and led them toward her throne. She left them in front of it and ducked behind the chair. When she came back out, she had a thin box in her hands, and her expression had soften considerably. She settled back into her throne, opened the box, and announced, “This is the story of the burnt rose.”

Queen Indra pulled a flower out of the box. The shriveled red blossom on the end was blackened around the edges. The rose was somehow perfectly dry.

“When I was younger, I fell in love with a human. He came to the beach everyday to fish. I hid in the reef and watched him silently. For months, he didn’t know I was there, until I threw myself onto the beach to get his attention. You see, I was deeply in love, and it drove me mad that he didn’t know of my existence.

“He ran over to me as I lay in the shallows. I told him my name, and I learned his: Tyler. After that, instead of fishing, Tyler spent the days talking to me. I always caught fish in the reef for him so he wouldn’t go hungry.

“A month after I learned his name, he informed me that his mother, his last living relative, had passed away. I suggested that he come live here in the kingdom. Tyler eagerly agreed — he had fallen in love with me — and left to gather his few belongings.

“While I waited for him to return, the sky turned red with fire. Dragons were attacking the land.” She hissed the word dragons with venom. “I feared for his life. My tears mixed with the sea.

“Just when I had resigned myself to the fact that my love was dead, he ran onto the beach. There was a sack over his shoulder and a perfect rose in his hand. As soon as I saw him coming, I took my sand dollar from my pocket. He crashed into the waves, but before I could blow on him, a dragon swooped down from the sky and shot its fire over the beach.” Queen Indra motioned at her arms, which, Lyric realized, were tight and pocked. Burn scars.

“I was panicking. We were horribly burned, and the dragons were attacking us. I used my sand dollar on Tyler and helped him swim to my kingdom. I was convinced that the healer could save him, for he in a much worse state than I was: burned all over. We arrived at the healer, and she quickly got to work. I begged her to help Tyler, but she said that I, as the queen, was her first priority.

“Once she had tended my burns, she moved on to Tyler. There was a time where he seemed to be at death’s door, but the healer helped him through it. She told me that he would survive. I was overjoyed at the thought of what my future held: we could get married and rule the entire ocean.

“Oh, but I had forgotten one terribly important thing: Tyler was human. He could only breathe underwater because of the sand dollar. And then it ran out. The healer started screaming, and Tyler was clawing at his throat. I grabbed him and swam to the surface as fast as I could.

“But it was too late.”

Lyric felt terrible for Queen Indra. She knew what it was like to loose a loved one. Her mother had been killed by dragons when she was only three years old.

“I still had his rose,” she said, smiling fondly. “I am telling you this,” Queen Indra continued, watching Ethan, “because Tyler’s last name was Bradley. I believe that he was lying when he said that his mother was his only living relative. Tell me, Ethan Bradley, is your mother alive?”

Ethan was breathing hard, staring at the floor. He opened his mouth to speak when a horrible dolphin-call alarm erupted in the room.

Lyric suddenly felt immense pressure crashing down on her body. She couldn’t breathe.

Zero minutes left.

Delmara’s voice sounded distant as she squeaked, “It went off several times, Your Majesty! I was trying to get your attention . . .”

Lyric and Ethan grabbed each others’ hands as they ran out of air.