The dragonet prophecy, p.19
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.19

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “All right,” she said, glancing at Queen Scarlet. She touched the chains around Tsunami, and they broke apart, collapsing with great clanking sounds to the balcony floor. Clay held his friends’ wing bindings away from their scales, and Peril burned right through them.

  “Now we get Sunny,” he said, leaping into the sky.

  The air was full of beating wings, red and gold and desert pale, whacking into each other and knocking one another off course. Peril shot ahead of him, clearing a path as dragons panicked out of her way. Clay saw her tail accidentally brush a SkyWing’s leg. The other dragon howled, clutching the burn, and tumbled into the side of the mountain with smoke rising from his scales.

  Tsunami and Glory were close behind Clay as they soared up to the feasting hall, over the cliffs. Wind billowed under his wings, and despite his fear of Burn, he felt that same fierce joy grip him at the freedom of flying. After days of being terrified he might fall, it was exhilarating to know that now he couldn’t — that he had the whole vast crystal-blue sky to move in.

  Peril reached Sunny’s cage first. Clay saw Sunny peering through the bars, trying to figure out what all the noise from the arena was about. Then her gray-green eyes landed on Clay, and her face lit up with joy.

  “I knew you’d be all right!” she cried as the three dragonets each nosed her through the bars. “I knew I shouldn’t have worried. I just kept thinking about the prophecy and how we can’t die because we have to stop the war.”

  Tsunami snorted. Peril hovered in front of the cage and sliced through the bars with her claws. The metal sizzled and steamed for a moment, then dropped to the ground below.

  Sunny flung herself out the door into Clay’s arms. She pelted him happily with her unbound wings.

  “Wait,” she said, looking around. “Where’s Starflight?”

  “We lost him,” Glory said.

  “What?”

  “Stop that,” Tsunami said, hitting Glory with her tail. “Glory means Morrowseer came and took him away. He’s fine. Better than us, especially once the dragons stop panicking and start looking for us. Let’s head for the river.” She banked around toward the cliff, scattering clumps of rusty blood-red sand from her wings.

  “But — he just left?” Sunny asked. She caught one of Clay’s talons and stopped him in midair. “Without us?”

  “He didn’t have a choice, Sunny,” Clay said, clasping her claws in his.

  “Clay, wait,” Peril said. Her copper wings shivered, and she clenched her talons as if she were about to split in two. “My mother. If Queen Scarlet isn’t dead, the first thing she’ll do is kill her.”

  “She’s right,” Clay said as Tsunami and Glory came winging back to see why they hadn’t moved. “Tsunami, we have to get Kestrel out.”

  “Why?” Tsunami challenged. “What do we care? Kestrel was awful to us.”

  “We care anyway,” Sunny said softly. “We can’t help it. Even you.”

  “I don’t,” Glory said. “She was going to kill me. Remember?”

  Clay did remember. He remembered every cruel word, every vicious bite. But he also remembered Kestrel offering herself to Queen Scarlet in their place. And he remembered the scars on her palms, and the look on her face when she saw that Peril wasn’t dead.

  “She didn’t raise us to care about her,” Tsunami argued. “Kestrel was just keeping us alive, and if that’s what she wants, the best thing we can do is run away right now.”

  “I’d like to be something more than alive,” Clay said fiercely. “I’d like to be the kind of dragon she doesn’t think I am — the kind they write prophecies about. That dragon would rescue her no matter how awful she is.”

  Tsunami lashed her tail, nearly knocking Glory sideways. Even though she was covered in blood, her blue scales shone through in the sunlight like buried sapphires. She glared at Peril for a long moment.

  “Fine,” she growled at last.

  “Not me,” Glory said. “Do what you like, but I’m not a big mushy ball of forgiveness like you are, Clay.” She met his gaze calmly, but her scales were rolling red and black like embers inside thunderclouds.

  “Then take Sunny, go to the cave at the bottom of the waterfall, and wait for us,” Tsunami said.

  “Can’t I help?” Sunny asked. “I think I could —”

  “Yes, by not getting yourself killed,” Glory said. She tipped her wings at Sunny, and flashed away over the edge of the cliff. Sunny hesitated, then squeezed Clay’s talons and followed her.

  “This way’s the fastest,” Peril said. She beat her wings, soaring up the cliff that overlooked the feasting grounds. Tsunami made a face at Clay and followed her. Clay could still hear the shouts and roars coming from the arena. He couldn’t tell if the queen was still screaming. Dragons filled the air; none of them seemed to be searching for the dragonets yet, but he knew it wouldn’t be long.

  As they flew up, Clay passed a narrow shelf of rock with a scrubby bush clinging to it. To his surprise, a scavenger was hanging from the cliff face a few lengths above the shelf. It was one of the prey scavengers from the party; it had somehow managed to climb up this high without being spotted. It was still struggling up the rocks, gasping for breath and shaking with exhaustion. Clay glanced up at the distance to the top of the cliff and realized how much farther it still had to go, especially for such a tiny creature.

  He didn’t know why he felt sorry for it. Scavengers were delicious nuisances, nothing more, according to everything he’d been taught. But he was going that way anyway … and it had tried so hard . . .

  Clay dropped back, scooped the scavenger up in his talons, and flapped after Peril and Tsunami again. The scavenger gave a yell and started shoving at Clay’s claws, but it carried no weapons and, as far as Clay could tell, scavengers had no natural defenses of their own. This one was smaller than the others he’d seen, with a thatch of black fur on its head and smooth skin nearly as brown as Clay’s scales.

  It wriggled and beat at his talons frantically for the few moments it took to reach the top of the cliff. Up here the view was mountains in all directions. Clay didn’t know what a scavenger’s natural habitat was, but this was the best he could do. Peril and Tsunami were already vanishing into a large hole that was the open roof of the main palace hall. Clay set the scavenger down gently behind a tall boulder.

  “And stay away from dragons from now on,” he said sternly, although he knew the scavenger couldn’t understand him. The scavenger stared at him, its mouth opening and closing. Not even clever instincts, Clay thought. Why wasn’t it running away?

  Not his problem anymore. He nudged it with his claw, turned, and dove into the roof hole. Down at the bottom of the hall, he could see Peril and Tsunami spiraling onto the grate over Kestrel’s head.

  From here he could also hear the clamor in the tunnels. Most of the SkyWings were outside, hiding in the sky around the mountain peaks. But the heavy thump of dragon feet and clattering of claws and teeth echoed through the hall.

  Burn only had to collect her soldiers — a shield between her and Glory’s venom — and then she’d come searching for the dragonets.

  Clay landed beside Tsunami on the grate and then jumped back as Kestrel’s yellow eyes glared through the bars at him.

  “What are you doing here?” she snarled.

  “Rescuing you,” Tsunami snapped back. “Against my will.”

  “Stand back,” Peril said, reaching for the metal latticework. She laced her claws through the thick bars, and the sharp smell of melting iron filled the air.

  Clay had never seen Kestrel look so uncertain before. She watched Peril with an uneasy expression, flicking her forked tongue in and out. Peril kept her own eyes fixed on the bars. They were much thicker than the delicate birdcage Sunny was in, and took longer to burn through.

  “I thought you were d
ead,” Kestrel said finally.

  “I thought you were dead,” Peril answered without any warmth in her voice.

  “I heard Scarlet had a lethal new champion,” Kestrel said. “I didn’t know it was you.”

  Peril shrugged. “I guess I didn’t need you. I turned out all right without you.” Clay and Tsunami exchanged glances. “All right” wasn’t exactly how Clay would have described Peril.

  “Queen Scarlet took care of me,” Peril went on. “She found me the black rocks I needed and gave me a purpose and a place to live.”

  “Black rocks?” Kestrel broke in. “What black rocks?”

  “Hey!” A pair of SkyWing guards came charging out of the nearest tunnel. “Stop!”

  One of them made the hissing fire-breath noise and shot a bolt of flame at Tsunami. Clay flung himself in the way and felt the fire blast his scales. Hot pain flashed through him, and then faded a moment later. He shook himself as the red glow ebbed from his scales and looked up into the guard’s shocked face.

  Tsunami lunged at the other guard, slashing his side and then slamming her tail into his head. He staggered back, then threw himself on her with his large wings beating back her defense.

  At the same time, Clay’s guard attacked him. They grappled, and he felt her talons rake the wounds that were still healing on his back. He threw her off with a fierce heave. She skidded into the wall just as the last bar snapped, and Kestrel rose, huge and angry, out of her cell.

  Clay had forgotten how big Kestrel was. Her red scales were scraped and chipped in places where the chains had pinned her down. Her talons looked blunted, as if she’d been clawing at the walls of her prison.

  “Kill them and let’s go!” she roared.

  Peril darted toward the guard who had Tsunami pinned. He let go of her, but it was too late. Peril’s talons caught him and sliced through his neck, leaving black scorch marks behind that bubbled and smoked. He tried to scream, and she raked his throat again, burning through the flesh and scales like they were paper.

  Clay felt sick to his stomach. He was glad he hadn’t eaten anything in a while. He looked down at the guard he’d been fighting. Her orange eyes were watching Peril in terror. She was only a soldier, fighting for her tribe and her queen.

  “Run,” he said to her. He hauled the SkyWing guard up and shoved her at the tunnel. She didn’t hesitate; in a flash of red and gold, she was gone.

  He turned and saw Peril’s face. She knew he’d been protecting the guard — a total stranger — from her. She knew now for certain how he felt about what she did.

  “Stupid worm,” Kestrel hissed from behind him. “She’ll raise the alarm. Queen Scarlet will catch us in moments.”

  “Queen Scarlet is probably dead,” Tsunami said sharply. “And don’t talk to Clay that way. Just — follow us and stop talking.” She launched herself up toward the sky. Clay met Peril’s eyes again. Her claws opened and closed, reaching toward him, and then she pulled them back.

  “Come on,” he said to her, trying to put understanding in his voice that he didn’t feel.

  They lifted off after Tsunami, copper and brown and red wings glowing as the sun reached them. Clay burst into the air and banked sharply toward the waterfall. He could feel Peril’s heat close on his tail.

  The rocky cliff flashed by beside them as they dropped toward the base of the waterfall. Tsunami led them closer to the bellowing water, whisking through the spray. Clay closed his eyes for a moment, turning his face into the mist of droplets.

  The sounds of the palace faded behind them, swallowed by the waterfall’s roar, as they plummeted farther and farther. This waterfall was taller than the one Clay and Tsunami had encountered on their way out of the mountain. It bounced over outcroppings of rock, divided into smaller cascades, poured in long, straight sheets and then shot out in bursts like dragons of water lashing out with their claws.

  At the bottom Clay saw a glittering ice-clear lake, with the Diamond Spray River crawling out the other side, through sloping hills east and south, toward the sea. Stubby trees and ragged scrubland, brown and green, edged the lake at the base of the mountain.

  Tsunami angled toward the dark gap in the wall near the bottom of the waterfall. As they drew closer, Clay saw a glint of gold as Sunny peeked anxiously out.

  They touched down on the muddy banks of the lake, in a thick copse of trees beside a small cave nearly hidden by the roaring wall of water. As Peril landed, the grass around her talons shriveled to ash. She looked down at the blackened earth and curled her tail in close to make her imprint as small as possible.

  “Kestrel!” Sunny cried. “You’re all right.”

  “No thanks to you five,” Kestrel growled, lashing her tail. “You wanted so badly to be free. Now do you see why we had to protect you?” One of her wings snagged on a tree branch and she wrestled it loose, growling.

  “You’re welcome,” Tsunami snapped back. “We could have left you in the Sky Kingdom. I would have.”

  Clay couldn’t resist the mud squelching between his claws. He threw himself to the ground and rolled, letting the warmth coat his arena-dusty, aching scales.

  “Good grief, Clay, yuck,” Glory said. She edged toward the lake and spread her wings to catch the sunlight.

  “Careful.” Tsunami reached to pull her back. “If they’re looking for us, they’ll definitely spot a bright purple dragon from the air.”

  Glory flared her ruff at Tsunami. “I am not bright purple. Queen Scarlet called this my violet mood, thank you very much.”

  “Oh, sorry,” Tsunami said. “I meant to say they’ll definitely spot a moody violet dragon from the air.”

  “You are the epitome of hilarious,” Glory said. “Anyway, I can take care of that.” Her wing scales shimmered as if they were drawing in the sunlight, and then the purple color started to break up like water being poured into paint. Soon she was the color of the muddy ground below her. “Happy?” she asked Tsunami.

  “I want to know what my cool power is,” Tsunami muttered. “You’ve got camouflage scales and venom-spitting teeth. Clay is immune to fire. Starflight apparently has big dragons waiting in the sky to save him whenever things get scary. What do I get?”

  “Clay is immune to fire?” Sunny asked. “What? And did you say venom-spitting teeth?”

  “Yeah,” Clay answered. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be nicer to Glory from now on, Sunny.”

  Sunny flapped her wings in outrage. “I’m always nice to — oh, you’re teasing me,” she said as he choked with laughter. She smushed a giant talonful of mud into his face. Clay ducked away and noticed Peril watching with drooped wings and a sad expression.

  “See, we can take care of ourselves,” Tsunami said to Kestrel. “You didn’t even know what Clay and Glory could do. You didn’t think we were good for anything, but it was your own fault for keeping us underground and treating us like eggs.”

  “Oh, we did everything wrong,” Kestrel said scathingly. “Go ahead and blame us, but we did as the Talons of Peace asked. You would probably all be dead if we hadn’t.”

  Tsunami lifted her chin. “We’re not going back to the Talons of Peace,” she said.

  “We’re not?” Sunny squeaked. Glory gave her a scornful look.

  “Oh?” Kestrel said. She bent her head to avoid the branches and gave Tsunami a sharp orange glare. “What is your magnificent plan, if I may ask?”

  “We’re going to find our homes,” Tsunami said. “And our parents. We’re going to see this war firsthand, instead of reading about it in scrolls. And then we’ll figure out for ourselves if we’re going to do anything about it.”

  “But, Tsunami,” Sunny whispered, tugging on her wing. “The prophecy! We have to!”

  “Shh,” Clay said. He drew her back, away from the wrathful look on Kestrel’s face, just in cas
e there was any fire-breathing about to happen.

  Privately, he agreed with Sunny. They couldn’t just ignore the prophecy. Something had to be done about the war, and everyone was waiting for the dragonets to do it. He kept thinking of the prisoners, singing the song of the dragonets as if it would save them.

  But he also agreed with Tsunami — they couldn’t do anything until they were out in the real world, figuring out what could be done. On their own, without the Talons of Peace keeping them away from their families and everything that made stopping the war important.

  There was a pause as Kestrel and Tsunami glared at each other. Smoke puffed from Kestrel’s nose, drifting away on the air. Clay glanced at Peril, but her eyes were fixed on her mother.

  “Fine,” Kestrel snorted unexpectedly. “What do I care? I’m done with you. I’ve done everything that was asked of me, and all I have to show for it is a pack of ungrateful lizards. Go find your precious families. I don’t care what happens to you.”

  “Oh, Kestrel,” Sunny said, climbing over and hugging Kestrel’s leg. “You don’t mean that. You know we appreciate everything you did for us.”

  Clay caught Glory and Tsunami rolling their eyes at each other.

  “You’re on your own now,” Kestrel said. She pried Sunny off and stepped back toward the lake. “And good riddance. Peril, are you coming?”

  Peril hesitated.

  “I thought you were coming with us,” Clay said. Peril’s eyes brightened.

  “Over my charred, dead body,” Tsunami growled, whacking Clay with one of her wings.

  “Why not?” Glory said, her eyes on a passing butterfly. “Maybe Peril’s the missing dragonet you all need for the prophecy … your ‘wings of sky.’ ”

  Clay blinked at her. “Wow. Do you think so?”

  Tiny scarlet flame shapes flickered around Glory’s ears, and she shrugged.

  “Oh, could I be?” Peril breathed.

 
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