The dragonet prophecy, p.2
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.2

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Can’t I fight one of the others?” he asked. “I’m much better at that.” The other dragonets were his own size (nearly), and they didn’t cheat (well, most of the time). He actually liked fighting with them.

  “Oh, yes? Which opponent would you prefer, the stunted SandWing or the lazy RainWing?” Kestrel said. “Because I’m sure you’ll get to choose out on the battlefield.” Her tail glowed like embers as she lashed it back and forth.

  “Glory’s not lazy,” Clay said loyally. “She’s just not built for fighting, that’s all. Webs says there’s not much to fight about in the rain forest because the RainWings have all the food they want. He says that’s why they’ve stayed out of the war so far, because none of the rival queens want RainWings in their armies anyway. He says —”

  “STOP YAMMERING AND GET DOWN HERE!” Kestrel roared. She reared up on her back legs and flared her wings so she suddenly looked three times bigger.

  With a yelp of alarm, Clay tried to leap to the next stalagmite, but his wings unfurled too slowly and he smacked into the side of it instead. Sparks flew as his claws scraped down the jagged rock. He let out another yowl of pain as Kestrel snaked her head between the columns, seized his tail in her teeth, and yanked him out into the open.

  Her talons closed around his neck as she hissed in his ear. “Where’s the violent little monster I saw when you hatched? That’s the dragon we need for the prophecy.”

  “Gawp,” Clay squawked, clawing at her grip. He could feel the strange burn scars on her palms scraping against his scales.

  This was how battle training with Kestrel always ended — with him unconscious and then sore or limping for days afterward. Fight back, he thought. Get mad! Do something! But although he was the biggest of the dragonets, they were still a year away from being full grown, and Kestrel towered over him.

  He tried to summon some helpful violent rage, but all he could think was, It’ll be over soon, and then I can go have dinner.

  So, not the most heroic train of thought.

  Suddenly Kestrel let out a roar and dropped him. Fire blasted over Clay’s head as he hit the floor with a thud.

  The red dragon whirled around. Behind her, panting defiantly, was the SeaWing dragonet, Tsunami. A red-gold scale was caught between her sharp white teeth. She spat it out and glared at their teacher.

  “Stop picking on Clay,” Tsunami growled. “Or I’ll bite you again.” Her deep blue scales shimmered like cobalt glass in the torchlight. The gills in her long neck were pulsing like they always did when she was angry.

  Kestrel sat back and flicked her tail around to examine the bite mark. She bared her teeth at Tsunami. “Aren’t you sweet. Protecting a dragon who tried to kill you while you were still an egg.”

  “But luckily you big dragons were there to save our lives,” Tsunami said, “and we sure appreciate it, because now we get to hear about it all the time.” She marched around to stand between Clay and Kestrel.

  Clay winced. He hated hearing this story. He didn’t understand it. He’d never want to hurt the other dragonets.

  So why had he attacked their eggs during hatching? Did he really have a killer monster inside him somewhere?

  The other minders, Webs and Dune, said he’d been ferocious when he hatched. They’d had to throw him in the river to protect the other eggs from him. Kestrel wanted him to find that monster and use it when he fought.

  But he was afraid if he ever did, he would hate himself, and so would everyone else. Thinking about what he’d nearly done to his friends made him feel like all the fire had been sucked out of him.

  He didn’t particularly want to be a violent angry monster, even if Kestrel thought that would be an improvement.

  But maybe that was the only way to make the prophecy come true. Maybe that monster was his destiny.

  “All right,” Kestrel said dismissively. “We’re finished here anyway. I’ll mark another failure in your scroll, MudWing.” She snorted a small flame into the air and swept out of the cave.

  Clay flopped down on the floor as soon as her red tail had vanished from sight. It felt like every one of his scales was stinging from the burns. “She’s going to be so mean to you during your training tomorrow,” he said to Tsunami.

  “Oh, no,” the SeaWing dragonet gasped. “I’ve never seen Kestrel be mean before! That’ll be so unexpected and out of character!”

  “Ow,” Clay groaned. “Don’t make me laugh. I think my ribs are broken.”

  “Your ribs are not broken,” Tsunami said, poking him in the side with her nose. “Dragon bones are almost as hard as diamonds. You’re fine. Get up and jump in the river.”

  “No!” Clay buried his head under his wing. “Too cold!”

  “Jump in the river” was Tsunami’s solution for everything. Bored? Aching bones? Dry scales? Brain overstuffed with the history of the war? “Jump in the river!” she’d shout whenever any of the other dragonets complained. She certainly did not care that she was the only one who could breathe underwater or that most other dragon tribes hated getting wet.

  Clay didn’t mind being wet, but he couldn’t stand being cold, and the underground river that flowed through their cave home was always freezing.

  “Get in,” Tsunami ordered. She seized his tail between her front talons and started dragging him toward the river. “You’ll feel better.”

  “I will not!” Clay shouted, clawing at the smooth stone floor. “I’ll feel colder! Stop it! Go away! Argh!” His protests went up in a cloud of bubbles as Tsunami dumped him in the icy water.

  When he resurfaced, she was floating beside him, ducking her head and splashing water over her scales like a beautiful overgrown fish. Clay felt like a gawky brown blob next to her.

  He sploshed into the shallows and lay down on a submerged rock ledge, with his head resting on the bank of the river. He wouldn’t admit it, but the burns and aches did feel better in the water. The current helped wash away the smoky rock dust caught between his dry scales.

  Still too cold, though. Clay scratched at the rock below him. Why couldn’t there be just a little mud down here?

  “Kestrel will be sorry one day, when I’m queen of the SeaWings,” Tsunami said, swimming up and down the narrow channel.

  “I thought only a queen’s daughters or sisters could challenge her for her throne,” Clay said. Tsunami swam so fast. He wished he had webs between his talons, too, or gills, or a tail like hers, so powerful she could nearly empty the river with one big splash.

  “Well, maybe the SeaWing queen is my mother and I’m a lost princess,” she said. “Like in the story.”

  Everything the dragonets knew about the outside world came from scrolls picked up by the Talons of Peace. Their favorite was The Missing Princess, a legend about a runaway SeaWing dragonet whose royal family tore up the whole ocean looking for her. At the end she found her way home, and her parents welcomed her with open wings and feasting and joy.

  Clay always skipped the adventures in the middle of the story. He just liked that last part — the happy mother and father. And the feasting. The feasting sounded pretty great, too.

  “I wonder what my parents are like,” he said.

  “I wonder if any of our parents are still alive,” Tsunami said.

  Clay didn’t like to think about that. He knew dragons were dying in the war every day — Kestrel and Webs brought back news of bloody battles, scorched land, and burning piles of dragon bodies. But he had to believe his parents were still safe. “Do you think they ever miss us?”

  “Definitely.” Tsunami flicked a spray of water at him with her tail. “I bet mine were frantic when Webs stole my egg. Just like in the story.”

  “And mine tore apart the marshes,” Clay said. They’d all imagined scenes of their parents’ desperate searches ever since they were young dragonets. Cla
y liked the idea that someone out there was looking for him … that someone missed him and wanted him back.

  Tsunami flipped onto her back, gazing up at the stone roof with her translucent green eyes. “Well, the Talons of Peace knew what they were doing,” she said bitterly. “No one would ever find us down here.”

  They listened to the river gurgle and the torches crackle for a moment.

  “We won’t be underground forever,” Clay said, trying to make her feel better. “I mean, if the Talons of Peace want us to stop this war, they have to let us out sometime.” He scratched behind his ear thoughtfully. “Starflight says it’s only two more years.” He only had to hold on that long. “And then we can go home and eat as many cows as we want.”

  “Well, first we save the world,” Tsunami said. “And then we go home.”

  “Right,” said Clay. How they were going to save the world was a little fuzzy, but everyone seemed to think they’d figure it out when the time came.

  Clay pulled himself out of the river, his waterlogged wings heavy and drooping. He spread them in front of one of the torches, arching his neck and trying to get warm. Feeble waves of heat wafted against his scales.

  “Unless . . .” Tsunami said.

  Clay lowered his head to look at her. “Unless what?”

  “Unless we leave sooner,” she said. She flipped over and pulled herself out of the water in one graceful motion.

  “Leave?” Clay echoed, startled. “How? On our own?”

  “Why not?” she said. “If we can find a way out — why should we have to wait another two years? I’m ready to save the world now, aren’t you?”

  Clay wasn’t sure he’d ever be ready to save the world. He figured the Talons of Peace would tell them what they had to do. Only the three guardian dragons — Kestrel, Webs, and Dune — knew where the dragonets were hidden, but there was a whole network of Talons out there getting ready for the prophecy.

  “We can’t stop the war by ourselves,” he said. “We wouldn’t know where to start.”

  Tsunami flapped her wings at him in exasperation, showering him with cold droplets. “We can too stop the war on our own,” she said. “That’s the whole point of the prophecy.”

  “Maybe in two years,” Clay said. Maybe by then I’ll have found my dangerous side. Maybe then I’ll be the ferocious fighter Kestrel wants me to be.

  “Maybe sooner,” she said stubbornly. “Just think about it, all right?”

  He shifted his feet. “All right. I’ll think about it.” At least that way he could stop arguing with her.

  Tsunami cocked her head. “I hear dinner!” The faint sound of dismayed mooing echoed up the tunnel behind them. She poked Clay cheerfully. “Race you to the hall!” She whirled and pounded away without waiting for a response.

  The torches in the battle room seemed dimmer, and cold water was seeping under Clay’s scales. He folded his wings and swept his tail through the debris of the smashed rock column.

  Tsunami was crazy. The five dragonets weren’t ready to stop the war. They wouldn’t even know how to survive on their own. Maybe Tsunami was brave and tough like a hero should be, but Sunny and Glory and Starflight … Clay thought of all the things that might hurt them and wished he could give them his own scales and claws and teeth for extra protection.

  Besides, there was no way to escape the caves. The Talons of Peace had made sure of that.

  Still, part of him couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to go home now instead of waiting another two years. Back to the marshes, to the swamps, to a whole tribe of MudWings who looked like him and thought like him … back to his parents, whoever they were . . .

  What if they could do it?

  What if the dragonets could escape, and survive, and save the world … their own way?

  Clay swept the bones of dinner into the river with his tail. The stripped white shapes bounced away in the current.

  Fires flickered around the edges of the great central cave. Echoing space yawned overhead, dripping with stalactites, like huge teeth. The cave dome was big enough for six full-grown dragons to fit across with their wings extended. The underground river flowed along one wall, muttering and gurgling as if it were plotting its own escape.

  Clay glanced at the two small sleeping caves that opened onto the hall — currently empty — and wondered where the other dragonets had gone while he was cleaning up.

  “AHA!” yelled a voice behind him. Clay threw his wings over his head.

  “What’d I do?” he yelped. “I’m sorry! It was an accident! Or if it’s the extra cow, Dune said I could have it because Webs would be out late but I’m sorry and I can skip dinner tomorrow!”

  A small snout poked his back between his wings. “Calm down, silly,” Sunny said. “I wasn’t aha-ing at you.”

  “Oh.” Clay smoothed his crest and twisted around to look at her, the smallest and last-hatched of the dragonets. A pale lizard tail was disappearing into her mouth. She grinned at him.

  “That was my fierce hunting cry,” she said. “Did you like it? Wasn’t it scary?”

  “Well, it was certainly surprising,” he said. “Lizards again? What’s wrong with cows?”

  “Blech. Too heavy,” she said. “You look all serious.”

  “Just thinking.” He was glad Kestrel and Dune couldn’t read minds like NightWing dragons. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the idea of escape all through dinner.

  Clay lifted one of his wings, and Sunny nestled in close to him. He could feel the warmth from her golden scales radiating along his side. Sunny was too small and the wrong color — tawny gold instead of sand pale like most SandWings — but she gave off heat like the rest of her tribe.

  “Dune says we should go study for an hour before bed,” she said. “The others are in the study cave already.”

  Dune, the maimed dragon who taught them survival skills, was a SandWing, and so was Sunny … more or less. There was something not quite right about the littlest dragonet. Not only were her scales too golden, but her eyes were gray-green instead of glittering black. Worst of all, her tail curled into an ordinary point like the tails of most dragon tribes, instead of ending with the poisonous barb that was a SandWing’s most dangerous weapon.

  As Kestrel often said, Sunny was completely harmless … and what good was a harmless dragon? But her egg fit the instructions in the prophecy, so she was their “wings of sand,” whether the Talons of Peace liked it or not.

  Of course, there were no “wings of rain” in the prophecy at all. The dragonets had all heard — many times over — about how Glory was a last-minute substitute for the broken SkyWing egg. Kestrel and Dune called her a mistake and growled at her a lot.

  Nobody knew whether the prophecy could still happen with a RainWing instead of a SkyWing. But from what Clay knew of SkyWings, he was very glad they had Glory instead of another grumpy, fire-breathing Kestrel under the mountain.

  Besides, if anyone was likely to mess up the prophecy, it was him, not Glory or Sunny.

  “Come on,” Sunny said, flicking him with her tail. He followed her across the central cave.

  Twisting stone tunnels led off in four directions: one to the battle area, one to the guardians’ cave, one to the study room, and one to the outside world. The last was blocked with a boulder too big for any of the dragonets to move.

  Clay stopped and pushed against the rock with his shoulder as they went by. He often tried to open it when the big dragons weren’t around. Someday it would move when he did that. Maybe not a lot, but even a tiny shift would let him know he was finally getting close to full grown. He felt big. He was constantly bumping into things and accidentally knocking stuff over with his tail or his wings.

  Not today, he thought ruefully when the boulder didn’t budge. Maybe tomorrow.

  H
e followed Sunny down the tunnel to the study room. His enormous feet and thick claws thumped and scraped along the stone floor. Even though he’d lived under the mountain his whole life, it still hurt to walk on bare rock. He was constantly stubbing his talons, and they always ached by the end of the day.

  Tsunami was strutting around the study cave barking orders. Sunny and Clay sat down by the entrance, folding their wings back. A breath of air drifted down from the hole in the roof, far overhead — the only window to the outside in any of the caves. At night, without the distant hint of sunlight, the room felt colder and more hollow. Clay stretched up and sniffed at the darkness that had fallen on the other side of the hole. He thought it smelled like stars.

  A map of Pyrrhia hung on the wall between the torches. Tsunami and Starflight loved staring at the map, trying to figure out where their hidden cave was. Starflight was pretty sure they were somewhere under the Claws of the Clouds Mountains. SkyWings preferred to live high among the peaks, so anything could happen in the deep caves below without being noticed.

  “All this history is so confusing,” Sunny murmured to Clay, swishing her tail back and forth. “Why don’t the three sides just sit down and talk out an end to the war?”

  “That would be great,” Clay said. “Then we could stop studying it.”

  Sunny giggled.

  “Stop that,” Tsunami said bossily, stamping her feet at them. “No whispering! Pay attention. I’m assigning parts.”

  “This is not proper studying,” Starflight pointed out. His black NightWing scales made him nearly invisible in the dark shadows between the torches. He swept a few scrolls between his talons and began to neatly sort them into stacked triangles. “Perhaps I should read to everyone instead.”

  “Dear moons, anything but that,” Glory said from the ledge above him. “Maybe later, when we’re trying to fall asleep.” Her long, delicate snout, glowing emerald green with displeasure, rested on her front claws. Ripples of iridescent blue shimmered across her scales, and tonight her tail was a swirl of vibrant purples.

 
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