Several days after the full moon, Amber leaned against the rough brick of a wall, watching the kids from Jake's school flood out into the street. She stood straight, still a little unsteady without her wings, and started to walk forward.
Suddenly a girl plowed into her, and both of them toppled to the pavement.
Books went flying, but the other kids, glad to be out of class, paid no heed.
The girl leapt up and shouted, "Hey, watch where you're going!"
Amber picked herself up with difficulty now, she had a hard enough time walking on her human legs without pain interfering. "Watch where I'm going? You ran right into me, you-" she bit back the word human.
"Step off, ugly." The girl made a nasty face, and Amber went bright red. She raised both her hands, fingers spread, but quickly dropped them again, infuriated by remembering that she had no talons at the moment.
The girl collected her books and flipped her hair. "Weirdo."
"What are you doing?" Spud said in Amber's ear.
Amber jumped in surprise. "That girl knocked me over."
Spud smiled a little. "Yeah, I saw. Are you okay?"
Trixie walked up next, following Spud.
"I'll be okay, but she won't be." She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder- "Just wait until a huge eagle-creature appears at her window in the middle of the night."
"I'm one-hundred percent serious." She bristled and scowled, affronted by his amusement. She was not going to be laughed at, not by a human. "No one crosses me. Especially one of you scrawny creatures." she said furiously. "And if she has a few cuts on her, she can't very well tell people how it happened, now can she?"
She watched in satisfaction as both Spud and Trixie's faces fell.
"You're kidding, right?" Trixie said finally.
"I'm not weak."
"Weak? You think strength is picking on people?" Trixie demanded.
"Strength is strength. You either have it you don't."
"But choosing whether you wield it or not is the important question." Spud interjected.
Trixie gave him a strange look.
"Not using power that you are given is the worst kind of weakness. Of cowardice." Amberwing spat.
"But only the strong have the power to forgive."
"What . . . ?" both girls said simultaneously.
"Only the strong can keep from becoming slaves to revenge. You are weak if anger controls you."
Amber stared at him for several seconds, eyes unfocused, as if remembering something. Then she turned on her heel. "When Jake shows up, tell him I'm at Lao Shi's," she said over her shoulder.
"Jake's not even at school today." Trixie muttered sarcastically as the human-gryffer walked away. "That chick is some kinda messed up. What is wrong with her?" She crossed her arms and shook her head.
"Have a little perspective, Trix." Spud said flatly. "It's what she's been taught all her life. Imagine, being raised by the Dark Dragon."
"Whatever." Trixie waved a hand in the air dismissively. "That girl had better lock her window."
Amber stormed into Lao Shi's shop. "Fu?" she called. She went into the back room and saw him sitting on the couch, palms together, eyes closed.
"Fu?" she asked more quietly. "What's wrong?"
Fu Dog opened his eyes and looked up at her sadly. "Haley recently started training when she got her dragon powers." Fu began. "And a pooka hypnotized her into using them to-" his voice caught. He motioned to a chair. "Sit down. It's long story. And I think Jake blames himself."
Haley was training with Sun Park. "Have confidence. Don't second guess yourself." Sun Park encouraged her as she went through fighting motions.
Far away, in a cave illuminated by lavalight, a dragon shouted to young gryffers, performing similar motions. "Be relentless! Show no signs of weakness!"
"Find your balance, Haley. Let it guide you."
"Find your inner strength, let it drive you!"
The instructors watched their pupils carefully, correcting their stances.
"You are fighting to protect."
"You are fighting for your honor!"
Beads of sweat formed on the young ones as they pushed harder.
"And when you are fighting," the instructors said finally,
"Always-" the dragon growled,
"Never-" Sun Park said sternly,
"-use your claws."
"Alright, you've done enough today, Haley."
"Lesson's over, hatchlings."
Haley demorphed and walked over to retrieve her backpack. She turned back to Sun. "Master?" she asked. "Yes, Haley?"
"Why are we ending so early today?"
"I told you, you've done plenty. You need to rest." But that wasn't the reason.
A tear slid down Haley's cheek. Sun rushed to her. "Are you all right?" She asked. Haley shook her head. "I-I'll never be all right. Not after what I did."
Jake's blood had matched his dragon scales. Bright red.
Sun Park knelt next to her student.
"Cinderpaw!" The dragon called.
"Yes, Master?" the gryffer nervously sidled up to him.
"You did very well today. You have faster talons than everyone here." He gestured to the dispersing figures.
"R-really?" she perked her head up.
"You will be a very strong fighter."
Haley was nearly hysterical now. "Master, think of what I could've done to him!"
"But that wasn't you, Haley. The pooka was controlling you. And you overrode him."
"Not soon enough," came Haley's tortured whisper.
"But you did, Haley, and Jake doesn't hold it against you."
"But Master, he wouldn't have had such control of me if-"
Sun Park waited patiently.
"I-if I hadn't enjoyed doing some of it. Early on." It was like I was stronger- or braver- than Jake.
There was a moment's silence.
"Evil does give you pleasure, Haley. No one would do evil things if they did not afford some kind of pleasure." Haley looked up at Sun, startled. Whatever she had expected to hear, that wasn't it.
"The most important thing is Haley, that you use the pleasure of doing good overcome the pleasure of doing evil. And make no mistake-" she wiped a tear from her cheek with her thumb. "You fought off the pooka's control. You are strong enough."