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Child Soldiers in literature.


Precociously Talented

In General

  • David Westheimer's alternate history novel about a 1945 invasion of Japan features a Japanese schoolteacher leading his malnourished class against American tanks. Tragically, it's implied that the teacher is so fanatical that he ignores his charges' youthful status; at one point the night before the attack, he hears children sobbing and debates whether or not to order his 'troops' to look for them. When they do rush the American tanks with inadequate satchel charges, the US tankers are briefly surprised, thinking they are being attacked by midgets, then open fire and kill them all.
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Specific Works

  • As part of the BattleTech Expanded Universe, several novels mention child mechwarriors: Several 15-16 year olds in the second Grey Death mercenary's novel are piloting mechs; Later Draconis Combine hero Shin Yodama is mentioned as carrying demolition charges through culverts at the age of 14.
  • Rana Sanga's son Rajiv in the Belisarius Series was being groomed to be a quite formidable Warrior Prince while still a teenager. However his father certainly intended that he be allowed to grow up before seeing actual combat and he only participates in war in the series because of an attempt to murder his family while his father is away on campaign.
  • Bitter Seeds has a team of Nazi child psychic soldiers.
  • In A Brother's Price, the Whistler family's grandmothers were all soldiers-turned-thieves-turned-spies, and they passed a great deal on to their descendants. When a shot rings out near the house while their mothers and older and middle sisters are out, leaving no one older than twelve save for a brother, they get themselves inside, younger siblings and boy first, older ones "doing a slower rear guard, scanning over their shoulders for lost siblings or strangers." The twelve-year-old girl goes with her soldier training to give orders, and little girls work in teams to load rifles and guard the windows. However, they never actually have to see action—a captain advises her princess to keep back, she doesn't want to have to execute an eight-year-old for shooting her—and said princess is later horrified at the thought of the little girls riding out with her after some smugglers. They want to come, but their elder sisters won't let them.
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  • The Candy Shop War justifies this trope. Magic in the universe has an in-built Catch-22 Dilemma: Magic works best when you are young, but takes so long to learn that by the time you can do magic you've lost the power. Thus, the villains manipulate children into doing their dirty work.
  • In Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds, one of the two major human factions in the setting, the Polity, used genetically engineered, nanotechnology enhanced child-soldiers against the other major faction, the United States of Near Earth, in a war some time before the beginning of the novel. They later show up in the course of the novel, as part of a rogue Polity group which is attempting to destroy the book's MacGuffin. They are described as being particularly hard to fight because of human instincts and their own extreme skill and small size.
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  • In Jeramey Kraatz's The Cloak Society novel Fall of Heroes, Carla tells Lone Star that having a sidekick was bad enough; to let the teenagers fight is this trope.
  • A subversion is found in the Philip K. Dick novel The Counter-Clock World where aging reversed decades ago, and there's a commando squad of elderly soldiers who are now the size of small children and infants.
  • The titular character from the Ender's Game series along with the majority of characters in the first book are preteens who have been drafted into the International Fleet. After barely turning back two previous invasions by a race of insect-like aliens with technology far superior to Earth's, the best and the brightest of humanity are drafted at a young age to begin training as officers (rather than cannon fodder) for the impending Third Invasion. Every child on the planet is screened from birth for aptitudes that suit them to military command (including adequate-but-not-psychopathic aggression). The idea, like with any child soldier really, is to condition them while they are too young to fully understand and agonize over the morality of sending soldiers to their deaths. They are also more mentally flexible and can learn to think like the enemy, which was key to averting a nearly total defeat in the Second Invasion. Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a natural leader and the greatest strategic mind they've ever found, is put through an especially brutal and torturous training, which is deliberately engineered to psychologically and emotionally isolate him while honing his innate empathy and deep understanding of others so that he can predict and defeat his enemies and inspire undying loyalty among his subordinates). In effect, they turn a sweet and brilliant young boy into the greatest weapon in humanity's arsenal.
  • The whole Harry Potter series is about kids getting caught up in their elders' war and recruited/forced to fight in it in various capacities. This is an instance of "Precociously Talented Type" and "Just Plain Tragic Type" combined.
  • The Honor Harrington novels have an inversion of sorts, where due to the effects of Prolong (a lifespan-increasing treatment), freshly graduated soldiers will often still look like preteens young teenagers—but are actually in their thirties or forties. This produces some dissonance when they meet societies that haven't had access to the treatment.
  • Journey to Chaos: The Dragon's Lair mercenary company has a reconstructed version of this trope. It accepts new members as young as ten years old but only as apprentices, and only part-time. The vast bulk of their missions are harmless chores like painting someone's shop or collecting medical ingredients, because they are still in training. They don't go on missions with any danger until they have sufficient practice and even then their adult mentor is the one expected to do the heavy fighting. They won't be real soldiers until they have demonstrated both the maturity and the combat skill to handle being a real soldier. In other words, when they are no longer children.
  • King Matt and friends from Janush Korczak's "King Matt the First" where the pre-teen king also institutes a children's parliament. It ends in a complete, brutally realistic ruin for his country.
  • Legacy of the Aldenata: In Yellow Eyes, Panama is forced to recruit children as soldiers to defend itself from the Posleen. It avoids becoming a Moral Event Horizon because it is clearly portrayed as a desperation move against the Posleen, who would have killed and eaten the children anyway if they weren't stopped. Also, the children are rarely used as front-line soldiers, instead they are used primarily for supply and logistics work in order to free up adults to fight in the front lines.
  • The Lockwood & Co. series is presented as a light adventure version of this trope, so not Plain Tragic, though it would be with a different tone to the writing. The UK is in the grip of a disaster in the form of ghosts appearing, which have a touch which will set a living human inexorably and incurably dying, which will affect everyone while only children can see them. The children sometimes become sensitives, which do not fight but see the ghosts, or agents, which combat the ghosts; washouts from the agent recruitment become night watch, who can do nothing but fend off the ghosts with iron pokers. The larger agencies have well-equipped units of children with the most psionically-talented teens at the front, usually with an adult overseer, leading from behind as it is rare for an adult to retain the ability to see the ghosts. The protagonists are a crew of three.
  • Massively subverted in John Scalzi's Old Man's War series - While normally only Earth's elderly are recruited into the Colonial Defence Forces (their bodies get replaced), Special Forces soldiers are created from the DNA of recruits who die before they can be transferred to a new body. As a result they are fully mature adults who are emotionally and socially retarded, which helps them perform their jobs. In The Ghost Brigades one SF soldier notes that a dead child they encounter on a wildcat colony is twice as old as two of them put together, leading him to conclude that "it's a fucked up universe".
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Neither side thinks twice about recruiting and training to fight demigods as young as ten years old. Percy himself fights his first battles at age twelve, Annabeth fights hers only seven. Somewhat justified because monsters are constantly out to kill them, eat them, or both, so knowing how to fight is a requirement for any demigod to survive.
  • In The Red Vixen Adventures, when Alinadar was six her family was killed and she was enslaved by the vicious pirate Bloody Margo. As soon as she could hold a rifle she was sent out with the boarding parties. At her trial historical precedent for child soldiers is brought up and she is exonerated of the crimes she committed as a minor, but not those acts of piracy from her service with the much less domineering Red Vixen as an adult.
  • Most of Redwalls main heroes are the rodentine equivalent of about twelve to fifteen years old.
  • Sandokan has an interesting example with Marianna Guillonk: her parents died when she was 10 and she ended in the care of her uncle, a Royal Navy retired captain that was about to embark on a cruise to free the Indian Ocean of pirates, and, unable to not go due the bad timing, he brought Marianna on his ship... And she just learned the military trade by himself. It's implied that lord Guillonk settled down three years later when he realized his beloved niece was now a hardened soldier and was appalled at what he had allowed to happen.
  • In the Seafort Saga the radiation associated with FTL travel means you must join the Navy as a child so your body acclimatises to it as you grow up; otherwise you risk cancer. The protagonist finds himself commanding a ship for several years, starting at the age of 17. Later he is Commander of the Naval Academy and must send the academy cadets on suicide missions to defend Earth.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's Space Cadet the Commander of the Academy talks briefly of taking these young men and changing them forever. Even those who eventually drop out will find civilian life foreign to them. Robert A. Heinlein graduated from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis at the age of 22. He may know what he's talking about.
  • The Spirit Animals series has an interestingly Justified example. When the four eleven-year-old heroes establish bonds with the Physical Gods known as the Four Fallen, the Greencloaks are forced to send them into battle immediately, because the Devourer is moving right then and only the Four Fallen have a chance of stopping them.
    • Also a specific example when one of the four kids, a girl named Meilin, offers to champion the party in a ritual duel. Naturally, the grown-ups assume she's off her head, until she explains that she's been trained in this world's version of kung-fu since she was five.
  • In Stone King, youths as young as twelve are conscripted into the Japan Self-Defense Force's Titan Corps.
  • Many characters in Fiona Patton's Tales of the Branion Realm, justified by the medieval setting. Crosses over with Enfante Terrible in some cases.
  • The Tomorrow Series is about a group of teens (exact age not specified, though they're still in school) who inadvertently become guerilla soldiers when their country (Australia) is invaded while they're out camping.
  • The War Against the Chtorr. With most of the world population killed off by alien plagues, anyone old enough to fight the alien invaders is conscripted into the military.
  • Warrior Cats:
    • Cats need to be six moons (months) old, which is around the equivalent of age ten to thirteen for humans, to begin training to be a warrior. They usually don't end training until they're around twelve moons old (roughly their mid-late teens). Real-world cats are considered kittens until they're one year old and the apprentices are noted to still be growing, so most apprentices count. They're normally barred from serious battle, however they have been known to get into fights or even battles when needed.
    • Fireheart and Graystripe were made into warriors several moons earlier than the norm, likely somewhere around their early teens after showing exceptional valor in a major clan battle.
  • In the short story by Harry Harrison, War With The Robots, the command staff are all teenagers as anyone older lacks the reflexes and flexibility of mind needed to fight the war. They retire after four or five years.
  • The eponymous witches in the short story "Witch War" by Richard Matheson. Young girls with magical powers who use them as weapons in a WWII setting. And it's very disturbing.

Just Plain Tragic

In General

  • Aubrey-Maturin is not the only example — middies in Napoleonic naval fiction are commonly in action. Richard Bolitho destroys a pirate ship at sixteen, while Horatio Hornblower captured a French privateer at seventeen. Lord Ramage took to sea at thirteen. The minimum age in the Royal Navy was twelve for midshipmen, and eighteen for lieutenants. These restrictions were commonly relaxed, especially for members of prominent families. Mitigating this, midshipmen were frequently carried on the ship's books a few years before they were actually carried on the ship. If a boy's father had been in the navy, some sources say that the minimum age was NINE. As well as the Midshipmen, there were also the ship's boys, many of who were born on board ships (possible origin for the term "son of a gun", being born between the guns) and would be used in action as soon as they were able to start running powder and shot from the magazine to the guns. "Topmen" too would usually be closer to boys.
  • There's a short story which details the journey of a group of children on the Children's Crusade. As history tells, it does not end well, which makes their optimism that God will favor their cause once they reach Jerusalem to be rather a Tear Jerker. Fortunately, the narrator had been a werewolf since birth (he joined the Crusade in the hopes of God freeing him from his curse) and the night they're delivered to Egypt as slaves happens to be just the same night as the full moon...

Specific Works

  • Hans and Gretchen Richter in 1632 were kidnapped from their peaceful family in the Thirty Years' War, Hans to be a soldier and Gretchen to be a Sex Slave. They are forced to do their captors' bidding lest their younger siblings be killed as useless mouths. The amazing thing is that they were able to remain human at all and had any capability of recivilizing themselves when they were freed.
  • Alice, Girl from the Future: Even Alisa Selezneva, "Girl to whom nothing will happen" from books of Kir Bulychev, was drafted as a soldier once at age 12.
    • She (actually the author) also gives an explanation WHY this is common: "If a grown up soldier revolts, he can be hard to deal with. He may very well turn the weapons you give him at you. Kids usually can be controlled by means as simple as threatening to deny them sweets."
  • In Animorphs, a group of barely teenagers (they were 13 when they started) get drafted into fighting a secret alien invasion by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cue the loss of any personal life, killing and nearly getting killed a dozen times a week, being forced to sacrifice loved ones for the greater good and recurring nightmares that last for the rest of their lives. By the end of the war, they're still under-aged (16 to be exact).
  • The midshipmen in Aubrey-Maturin books, tragically a case of Truth in Television.
  • Beasts of No Nation is narrated by a child soldier fighting for a rebel force in an unnamed African country. Many of his comrades are underage.
  • Averted in Blunted Lance by Max Hennessy (aka John Harris). The elderly Goff mentions that he always discouraged this trope, because underage recruits lacked the staying power and resistance to disease of more mature soldiers.
  • Caliphate: Just like the Ottoman Empire, the Caliphate takes Christian boys as slaves and indoctrinates them to be their Janissaries. Hans is forced to become one, but deep down he feels resentful of his position and preserves his faith as means of resistance. He deserts them after some encouraging words from a priest and finding out his sister was made into a Sex Slave.
  • In Chandas Wars by Allan Stratton, Chanda's siblings are taken by a warlord in an unnamed Sub-Saharan African country to be soldiers.
  • A young Vlad Tepes in Count and Countess is held hostage by the Ottoman Empire and forced into the Janissaries.
  • The Dalemark Quartet: In Drowned Ammet, the protagonist is Mitt, a boy whose family is forced off its farm and into the city slums because they can't pay the earl's rising taxes. Then Mitt's father joins a society of revolutionaries and dies, which prompts Mitt to join the society himself, and then he gets the brilliant idea to blow up the earl...
  • In The Dinosaur Lords, the horde includes children brainwashed into becoming silent killing machines, sowing terror among heroes' army mainly because of how horrid the whole thing is, rather than because of their effectiveness.
  • All of the soldier boys from The Drowned Cities. Sociopathic Soldiers abound, especially among those who've reached their teenage years or grown up.
  • The Gone series. In book 1, the Big Bad has recruited superpowered kids from Coates Academy to fight for him, and The Dragon has an army of Child Soldiers armed with guns. In books 2 and 3, The Hero has an unofficial army of teenagers with superpowers, and The Lancer is the commander of an army of Child Soldiers with guns. The Dragon beating a 9-year-old to death while laughing is enough to disgust even the Big Bad. Justified because they live in a Teenage Wasteland.
  • The later Harry Potter books see several underage wizards/witches seeing real combat due to various circumstances, namely the rising stakes. The most tragic example is Colin Creevey, who is killed in the book 7 finale (he would have been sixteen or possibly even seventeen at this point, but his small stature would have certainly made him seem younger).
    • In a striking example of Fudge's refusal to face the facts and pull his head out of the sand in Order of the Phoenix part of his insane paranoid delusion regarding Dumbledore's insistance Voldemort is back, and the reason Professor Umbridge is being deliberately obstructive in her own students' education, is that he believes that Dumbledore is building a private army out of the students of his own school with which to stage a coup d'état against the Ministry of Magic.
  • Homage to Catalonia: The party militias included many underage boys. Orwell notes that they were quite useless as soldiers, since they couldn't stand the sleep deprivation that was inevitable in trench warfare.
  • Robert Muchamore's unpublished book, Home (available online here), which features children in a guerilla army; however, they are there purely by accident, and the leader is a pretty decent guy, though no bones are made about his kills and the psychological effects on them.
  • Horatio Hornblower: While some of the Child Soldiers in this book series are the heroic Plucky Middie types, some of them die tragically. Similar fate awaits the ships' powder monkeys.
  • The Horrible Histories book The Frightful First World War recounts a true story where an underage boy tries to join the British Army by lying about his age, but quickly caves in when he's called out on it by the Recruiting Sergeant. Then the Sergeant tells him to leave, run around the block once, come back and try to be a little more compelling.
    • In fact, the book was dedicated to the youngest recorded British soldier to die in the war, who was fourteen.
    • According to the BBC audio series, this was a possible reason to why there were so many soldiers that were as young as fourteen.
      • A sketch mocks this by interviewing an angry woman that is working in the factories that are making weapons for the soldiers. She ends her interview by snapping that she will be sending her son to the church to join the army in Europe, and then an astonished voice in the background squeals, "[Your son]'s only nine!"
    • In fact, after the young soldiers returned home once the war was over, they either died from Spanish Flu, became homeless, or returned to a house where their family was evicted from.
  • Hurog: In Dragon Bones, sixteen-year-old Ciarra is ordered to stay behind while the other members of the group kill some rapist bandits. She doesn't listen, wounds a man in a way that makes him suffer, and has to ask her big brother Ward to mercy-kill the man. She's quite competent in combat, but can't stomach the killing. Her brother Tosten is somewhat older than she is, but not used to killing, either, and is visibly disturbed after his first kill. Ward has killed before, possibly before he turned sixteen, and is a bit worried by the ease with which he can kill.
  • Teenage witch Sylvia of Arc from Nick Perumov's Keeper of the Swords series. Was "considered a veteran at the age of ten." She fills both variants (i.e. is both Precociously Talented AND Tragic) of this trope, though, as she is IMMENSELY talented and could take most adult opponents with ease... until she started to run into demigods, that is.
  • The protagonist of The King's Rifle by Biyi Bandele, is a West African boy of fourteen who runs off to volunteer for WW2 because his older friends are joining. His friends aren't happy at this, so when he falls ill they use this as an excuse to leave him behind in hospital. Unfortunately he's so persistent he ends up being assigned to the Chindits, who are fighting behind the lines in Burma.
  • In Sergey Lukyanenko's Knights Of The Forty Islands, a number of children are kidnapped, taken to an unknown archipelago, and scattered over the forty islands, interconnected by bridges. Each island has about a dozen kids who are promised a return home if they manage to conquer all the other islands. Which is impossible, since each island is connected to three others, meaning there is simply not enough manpower to conquer even one other island while trying to protect your own. The kids attempt an alliance with other islands, but it quickly breaks down. Their main weapons are special wooden swords that turn to steel when the wielder feels anger, which only serves to make the kids more prone to anger. At the end of the novel, when the protagonist returns home, he is attacked by a teenage gang, only to easily fight them off with the skills picked up on the islands. He has to force himself to stop before killing some of them, as the instinct is now so ingrained in him.
  • Live Free or Die by John Harris, features a group of French kids in occupied Paris, playing at resistance, as they are just not going to be allowed to join the French Resistance. They have collected real weapons (a piecemeal array of old civilian weapons at best) and decided they are good enough to do it for real... when the time comes to liberate the city, they are all promptly slain.
  • The autobiography A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah is a very chilling, tragic account written by a boy who was removed from the government army of Sierra Leone by a group from UNICEF.
  • Cotillion and Shadowthrone's army of orphans in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. In a show of Black Humour, the children are rescued from their crosses after crucifixion, physically healed and "given" to the two, which is not appreciated due to the two gods' preference for acting from the sidelines. Most of them eventually die when they are put to the task of defending the Throne of Shadow from intruders. The only one of them shown in detail in the series is Panek, who has bonded with demon Apt and had, in a show of even more Black Humour, his eye sockets molded into one by Shadowthrone during the healing process to more resemble said demon.
  • In Richard Kadrey's Metrophage, most soldiers of the misleadingly-named Committee for Public Safety are teenage boys. Less horrific than some examples in that the boys are recruited from the streets of a dystopian future L.A., meaning most of them were violent killers before they signed up for the perks of being government violent killers. More horrific in that the strength- and growth-enhancing drugs which the Committee issues the still-growing recruits turns them into acromegalic "Meat Boys", and ruins their health by the time they turn 20 if they actually survive combat that long.
  • Les Misérables features minor character Gavroche, a street-child who participates in the student uprising, collecting ammunition from the bodies of fallen enemy soldiers and survives being shot once to throw his bag of bullets over to his friends before falling to another shot.
  • Discussed in the Nightfall (Series). The Resistance is severely undermanned and everyone is needed in the fight, but their commander refuses to let anyone under sixteen fight. Opinions on this policy vary among Resistance warriors.
  • Willie, husband of the narrator of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, joined the Confederate army in the The American Civil War at the age of 13. It messed him up—just how horribly is revealed gradually over the course of the book.
  • Pink And Say is about two 15-year-old soldiers during The Civil War. The book was based on the story of the author's ancestor, passed down to her by her father, as her grandmother had passed it to him.
  • In The Reader (2016), pirate lord Serakeen is said to be kidnapping young boys from across the land of Kelanna to turn them into these for his army. Sefia is able to free one of them, name him Archer, and rehabilitate him into her companion.
  • Septimus Heap was raised as one of these for the first ten years of his life, after being stolen from his parents at birth. He was intended to be raised as a Tyke Bomb, but ended up in the army instead due to a mix-up. Despite moving in with his real parents at the end of the first book, his army experiences never quite leave him.
  • Someone Else's War is about a fictitious Muslim boy who joins the (real) Lord's Resistance Army to find and save his little brother from this fate.
  • Chris Abani's Song For Night takes place in West Africa (presumably Nigeria, given the writer's home country) during a senseless war that forcibly recruits children. Amongst the tragedies, these kids are usually orphans, they get their vocal cords slit to keep them from making noise, they're coerced to rape innocent people by their sadistic leader, and witness their comrades get blown up by proximity mines, which they're trained to defuse. Unsurprisingly, many of them don't last past their teens. The worst part? The aforementioned statements are Truth in Television, since the story's based off the author's real life experiences.
  • Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire. In A Game of Thrones, she is just a spirited tomboy, meant as a foil to her ladylike sister Sansa. As of A Dance with Dragons, war has killed off most of her family, and hardened her character: hoping to become lethal enough to kill who she views as the men responsible for her close ones' death, she becomes an assassin-in-training for the feared Faceless Men. The fact that she doesn't seem to feel any remorse or guilt while killing just adds to her creepiness.
  • In Temeraire, which is as historically accurate as any series featuring dragons can be, shows young midshipmen and other military personnel among Britain's armed forces. Laurence himself ran away from home to join the Navy at twelve, and when he becomes an aviator, several of his crew are around ten, eleven, or twelve. While aviators don't actually go up at ages earlier than that and aren't part of the crew meant to fight until years later, cadets start training at seven so they're acclimated to the dragons by the time they're ready for duty. This is more presented as childhood being shorter in those days, as well as the British being pressed hard by Napoleon, than anything else. The author also does not shy away from some of these Child Soldiers being killed, either in battle or through accidents that will occur on military vessels.
  • Karin Lowachee milks this trope for all the tragedy it's worth. The main character from Warchild is a child soldier, borderline spy and assassin, even. He's not a very happy or well-adjusted young man. But then he's contrasted with his friend Evan, who in addition to being captured and raised by pirates, is alluded to being a child whore in addition to a soldier. The "good guys", if you can call them that, use teenagers as cannon fodder.
  • In Dan Abnett's Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy novel Legion, Chayne's Back Story: his planet, fighting the Emperor, had recruited children. Chayne had found himself in charge of his company when their leader died. After their defeat, the Lord Commander picked him out, gave him a guardian, and turned him into an elite Imperial soldier.
  • In Warrior Cats, one of the laws in the warrior code is that kits must be six moons old to begin training. They don't see battle until they're more experienced, and aren't promoted to full warriors until twelve moons, roughly their mid-late teens in human terms. This rule stemmed from too many kits being trained at too young an age; it took their mothers refusing to fight in a battle to make the Clan leaders see sense. This law has been broken once during the books: Brokenstar trained ShadowClan kits to fight when they were barely weaned from their mothers and promoted them to full warriors at five moons old (the equivalent of about age nine in human years), and as a result many of the Clan's kits died in battle.
  • In Suicide Kings from the Wild Cards series Dr. Nshombo uses child Aces as soldiers. Since they have superpowers this would normally put them in the precocious category, except for how he gets them. He takes normal children in large numbers and exposes them to the wild card virus. This kills most of the people exposed to it. About nine percent suffer extreme but survivable mutations. And about one percent gain superpowers without being mutated, known as Aces. Aces or those with useful mutations are conscripted. The rest, including those who turn out to be "deuces" are shot.
  • The dragonets in the Wings of Fire series. They were stolen as eggs, and raised under the belief that they would be of the "talented and special" type, in order to put an end to a continent-wide war, but the dragonets themselves don't agree with their mentors' vision of them. Eventually, they decide to break free and go about saving the world their way.


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