The dragonet prophecy, p.8
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.8

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “Wow,” Tsunami said. She stuck her front talons in the river. “And we’re not even at the MudWing swamps yet. I wonder if I’ll be this excited when I get to the sea.”

  “You will,” Clay said, suddenly feeling certain and brave and confident. “And when you can fly. Can we fix your wing?” He tilted his head, studying her injury.

  The waterfall poured down a cliff that towered over them, with even higher mountains beyond. The three moons were low in the sky. Clay guessed it would be morning soon, and then they could look for the smoke signal that would lead to their friends. But Tsunami couldn’t fly, she’d be stuck down here … easy pickings for any hostile dragons flying by.

  Clay glanced up at the sky, remembering that they’d popped out into a world at war. It seemed so peaceful here. From the way the big dragons talked, he’d imagined the entire world as a giant battlefield. It was strange to be in a quiet clearing, with no sights or sounds of war or even other dragons anywhere nearby.

  But he knew that the Talons of Peace — and, by extension, the dragonets — had enemies everywhere. The three SandWing queens distrusted the prophecy and would kill anyone who got in their way. And there was a whole list of dragons who might do terrible things to the dragonets of destiny, if they ever found them.

  Tsunami twisted to look at her dislocated wing. “I’m sure I can fix it,” she said. “I saw this in a scroll once. It just needs to be banged back into place. Maybe if I run myself into a tree.” She glanced around at the forest, then suddenly charged at the nearest solid tree trunk.

  Clay leaped out of the mud and pounced on her tail, yanking her back before she crashed.

  “Ow!” Tsunami stormed. “Get off! I can fix it! This will work!” She snapped her teeth at him.

  “Stop being a grumpy SkyWing. Smashing yourself into a tree is a terrible plan,” Clay said. “Can I look at it?”

  Tsunami settled down on the grass, grumbling, with her wings spread out. Clay circled her, then stood back and looked at the uneven line of her wings and shoulders.

  “If you can stay still,” he said, “I think I can shove it back into place.”

  “Is that a good idea?” Tsunami asked, flinching away from him.

  “Better than running into a tree,” he pointed out. “Dig your claws in and brace yourself.”

  Tsunami clutched the ground and closed her eyes. Clay felt gently along her shoulder with his front talons. It was easy to find the spot where a bone had slipped out of its socket. He touched it lightly until he was sure where it was and where it needed to be. Then he grabbed and shoved the bone into place in one quick, strong movement.

  “OW!” Tsunami roared, rearing back. Her powerful tail whipped around and slammed Clay into a thicket of prickly bushes.

  “I’m sorry! I’m sorry,” Clay yelped, floundering free. “I really thought that would work.” He stopped. Tsunami was turning in a circle, flexing and extending both wings. They looked perfectly matched again.

  “It did work,” she said. “It’s a little sore, but I can move it now. Pretty fierce, Clay.” She helped disentangle his tail from the branches. “Sorry I whacked you.”

  Clay opened his mouth to respond, but Tsunami suddenly seized his snout and held it shut. She raised one talon, her ears twitching.

  “What’s that?” she whispered.

  Clay tried to swivel his head around, but Tsunami’s grip was too tight. He strained his ears to listen.

  Something was crashing through the forest toward them.

  “

  Not big enough to be a dragon,” Tsunami whispered. “I think.”

  Now Clay could hear a huffing, panting sound and the cracking of branches. It sounded more prey than predator. He pried Tsunami’s claws off his snout and whispered, “Maybe we can eat it.” They couldn’t rescue the other dragonets until sunrise anyway, and he wanted to test his hunting skills outside the caves.

  A short, pale creature stumbled into the moonlit clearing in front of them. The top of its furry head was barely as high as Clay’s shoulder. It had two long, thin legs and two dangling arms that ended in floppy, clawless talons. One arm held something pointy, like a giant dragon’s claw, and the other was wrapped around a bulky sack.

  It spotted Tsunami and Clay, dropped everything it was holding, and shrieked a long high-pitched note, like the birds Clay had sometimes heard through the sky hole.

  “It’s a scavenger,” Tsunami cried with delight. “Look, Clay! Our first time outside, and we’re already seeing a real live scavenger.”

  “It’s so little,” Clay said. “And look, it’s scavenging something right now.” He reached out to poke the bulky sack. The creature screamed again, backing away and covering its head with its arms.

  “I thought they’d be scarier,” Tsunami said, disappointed. She lowered her snout to peer at it. “One of these killed Queen Oasis? Really?” She picked up the metal claw it had been carrying, which was about four times as long as a regular dragon claw. “I guess these are pretty sharp, but still … it must have been some kind of unlucky accident.”

  “Can we eat it?” Clay asked. His tongue flicked out and in.

  “Starflight says they’re endangered,” Tsunami said. “But I say it’s their fault we’re all in this war, so eat as many as you like.” She swung the claw in a circle and glared down at the scavenger.

  The scavenger was gibbering strange noises at them, waving its arms at the sack and the claw. Some of its movements were almost dragonlike, as if it was trying to communicate with them.

  “Maybe it wants us to have whatever’s in here,” Clay said, lifting the sack. He upended it, and a pile of jewels and trinkets tumbled out, bouncing and sparkling across the grass. Clay saw three large rubies and a scattering of white diamonds among the gold shapes.

  “Treasure,” Tsunami cried. She picked up a silver medallion with a spiral carved into it, studded with tiny sapphires.

  “Glory would love that,” Clay said.

  “So would I!” Tsunami said. “I know you like bringing her pretty things to cheer her up, but I saw this first.”

  “All right,” Clay said diplomatically. “Maybe something else, then. Can we keep all this treasure?”

  “Certainly not,” said a new voice. “Not unless you want to fight me for it, which I don’t advise.” An orange SkyWing dragon, slightly bigger than Clay, landed soundlessly in the clearing behind the scavenger. Wreaths of smoke coiled around her horns. As the scavenger shrieked again, she bent down and bit off its head.

  “Blech,” she said, spitting it out again immediately. The head bounced across the grass as the body slowly toppled over, blood pouring out of its neck.

  “Now, that’s just unfair,” said the orange dragon. “First of all, thieves are always trying to steal my beautiful treasure. And then they aren’t even delicious when I catch them.” She poked the body. “All stringy and tasting like fish. Yuck.”

  Clay took a step back from the spreading pool of blood. He didn’t feel hungry anymore.

  “Who are you?” Tsunami asked. She was turning the medallion over between her claws as if she wondered whether it might be worth fighting for.

  The orange dragon stared at her, her yellow eyes narrowing to slits. Clay noticed that a fine coat of golden chain mail, hung with rubies and amber drops, was fitted around the dragon’s torso. A row of tiny rubies was embedded between the scales over each of her eyes, and more rubies edged the top of her wings. Whoever she was, she had a lot of treasure, which meant she must be important.

  “You don’t know who I am?” the strange dragon said. “How upsetting. I’m really very hurt. Either I need to get out more, or you’re not a very good spy, are you, SeaWing?”

  “I’m not a spy!” Tsunami said. “We don’t even know where we are. We’ve been — held prisoner, kind of, and we just e
scaped.”

  The orange dragon tilted her head at Clay. “A SeaWing and a MudWing together,” she said. “Let’s see. I know you’re not from my dungeons, unless I’m getting horribly forgetful … so who was holding you? Blaze? I don’t think she has prison camps. Wouldn’t fit with her everybody-love-me act.”

  Clay took another step back. He didn’t like the sound of a dragon who had her own dungeons. “Tsunami,” he said quietly, “just give her back her treasure, and let’s go.”

  “A MudWing using his head,” said the orange dragon. “You don’t see that very often.” She slid menacingly toward Tsunami, stepping right through the scavenger’s blood and leaving red claw prints on the grass. Small flames flickered in her nostrils, and a steady stream of white smoke poured out and gathered more thickly around her horns.

  “All right,” Tsunami said, holding out the medallion. “We don’t want any trouble.”

  “Oh, neither do I,” said the orange dragon. “That’s why it makes me so sad when trouble keeps coming to me.” She reached out and grabbed Tsunami’s talon with the medallion still in it, squeezing hard. Clay started forward, but the strange dragon shot a bolt of flame at him so he had to duck back. She glared at Tsunami. “Nobody touches my treasure.”

  “We didn’t know!” Tsunami protested. “We don’t even know who you are!”

  “Oh,” the dragon hissed, “didn’t I say? My name is Scarlet. But I highly recommend you call me Your Majesty if you want to live.”

  Clay inhaled sharply. Even he recognized that name.

  They were standing face-to-face with the queen of the SkyWings.

  She was smaller than he had expected — smaller than Kestrel — but Clay knew they shouldn’t underestimate the SkyWing queen. She’d held on to her power for thirty years, despite fourteen brave, foolish, extremely dead-now challengers. She was one of the longest-lived and deadliest queens in Pyrrhia. Not to mention one of the worst possible dragons to get her claws on the dragonets of destiny, especially since she was allied with Burn, who hated the prophecy and had destroyed the SkyWing egg six years ago.

  Clay tried to remember anything else they’d learned about Scarlet. All he could think was scary.

  Queen Scarlet let go of Tsunami’s talons and slipped the medallion over her own neck. She turned and ran one claw down Clay’s snout.

  “Now you, MudWing, make me curious. We’re on the same side. So why didn’t you recognize me?”

  “Like I said —” Tsunami started. Queen Scarlet silenced her with a flick of her tail.

  “I like to hear the MudWing speak,” she said. “All rumbly and deep and nervous.”

  “We, uh,” Clay stammered. “We’ve been underground awhile … kind of always . . .” Tsunami made a face at him behind the queen’s back, which he guessed meant he shouldn’t give too much away. But what was he supposed to say?

  He glanced up at the mountains looming overhead and realized that they were outlined with a golden glow. The sun was coming up. They needed to go rescue their friends, and fast, before Kestrel took out her anger on the dragonets she could find.

  “We’re just passing through,” he said to Queen Scarlet. The rows of rubies over the queen’s eyes arched disbelievingly. “I mean — it was an honor to meet — a — it was very —” Terrifying was the only word he could think of. “We have to go,” he blurted.

  “Already?” said the queen. “But that’s heartbreaking. I hate being abandoned mid-conversation. There’s so much more I want to know about you.” She brushed the tip of her claw along the bottom of Clay’s chin. “I think the only place you should go is back to my palace in the sky. Doesn’t that sound thrilling? Don’t say no, it’ll hurt my feelings. You’re just what I’ve been looking for.”

  Clay had no idea what that meant, but he was too petrified to respond anyway. He stared up into her unfriendly amber eyes, thinking for the first time in his life that maybe Kestrel was right about everything. Most especially about staying under the mountain and avoiding all the bad dragons out in the world.

  Behind Scarlet, Tsunami raised the scavenger’s sharp claw. Her eyes met Clay’s. He felt the same chilling fear she must be feeling. If they attacked the SkyWing queen, they’d instantly have a new, powerful enemy who hated them.

  But they couldn’t tell her the truth about themselves. She’d take them captive or sell them to her ally Burn or kill them just to mess with the prophecy. And they couldn’t go with her either — they had to get back to their friends.

  He nodded slightly. Do it. We have no choice.

  Tsunami stabbed the claw through Queen Scarlet’s tail at the vulnerable spot, driving it straight into the ground beneath.

  The queen roared with fury and pain. She whipped her head around and blasted fire in all directions.

  “Fly!” Tsunami yelled. She rolled under the flames and shoved Clay’s tail. He spread his wings and bolted into the sky with Queen Scarlet’s fire scorching his claws. Tsunami flapped beside him, her wingbeats wobbly but determined.

  “It won’t take her long to get free,” Tsunami called. “Quick, we have to lose her in the peaks.” She soared up the cliff, and Clay followed.

  They flew past the top of the waterfall, where the river flowed out of a hole in the cliff. They flew up and up until they reached the top and whooshed out onto a rocky plateau studded with dark green trees and bushes. Even up here, the mountains loomed over them, impossibly high and unbearably big. The peaks zigzagged to the north and south like crooked dragon teeth, a jagged row that went on and on and on.

  The bigness of everything kept overwhelming Clay. How would they ever find their friends again in all of this? And even if they did, what could five dragonets do to save a world this big?

  Tsunami led the way, staying low and swooping around trees, diving into chasms where they found them. Her wingbeats were getting stronger as she flew. Sunlight spread across the mountains, dazzling Clay’s eyes. He wasn’t used to so much brightness — and this was only dawn. The ferocity of the midday sun was still ahead.

  “Here!” Tsunami called, jerking her head toward a dent in the side of the mountain. They spiraled down to land on the ledge outside a small cave. From here they could look over the rocky plateau, with valleys and mountain peaks spread out around them. Clay peered down nervously. The roar of the waterfall was a faint rumble in the distance. There was no sign of Queen Scarlet.

  “I can’t believe you did that,” he said to Tsunami.

  “I had to, didn’t I?” she asked, but without her usual conviction. She scratched at her gills, looking worried, then slipped into the shadows of the cave to check that it was empty.

  Clay wanted to reassure her, but he was worried, too. He closed his eyes and turned his face toward the rising sun. The heat soaked down through his scales until even his bones felt warm at last.

  “You should see yourself,” Tsunami said from the cave. “You’re practically glowing. I didn’t know MudWings had so many colors in them.”

  Clay opened his eyes and glanced down. He’d always thought of himself as just brown — plain brown scales, ordinary brown claws, the color of flat mud from horns to tail. But now, in the full sunlight for the first time, he could see gold and amber glints between and beneath his scales. Even the browns seemed richer and deeper, like the mahogany trunk where Webs kept the most delicate scrolls.

  “Huh,” he said.

  “You’re so pretty,” Tsunami joked, emerging into the light. Clay had to bite back a gasp. While the sun brought out his colors, it made her look bejeweled, like a dragon made of sapphires and emeralds or summer leaves and oceans.

  He thought of Glory and how beautiful she already was in the gloomy caves. None of them would be able to look at her in full sunlight, or else they’d be too dazzled to ever speak to her again.

  Glory. Clay squinted out
at the mountainside. There were crags and holes and rocky outcroppings that might lead to tunnels everywhere. He had no idea what the outside of their home looked like. They could see a lot of the mountain from here, but no smoke signal yet.

  The sun had nearly cleared the horizon now, climbing slowly up the sky and chasing away the three moons. Clay saw several red shapes flitting around the distant mountain peaks. At first he thought they were birds, until he spotted fire flickering around them like lightning, and realized they were dragons.

  This was definitely SkyWing territory. Starflight was right about where their secret cave was. But Clay had no idea how they’d escape the mountains now that the SkyWing queen was probably hunting them in a towering rage.

  Tsunami seized his shoulder. “Over there!” she cried, pointing.

  A thin column of smoke was starting to rise from a hole partway down the slope. Clay flung himself into the air and swooped over the hole. It was enclosed and partly hidden by a thicket of branches, so he couldn’t land next to it. But it was open to the sky and looked like the shape of the sky hole to him.

  It had to be his friends.

  Tsunami swept up beside him. They both hovered around the smoke, trying to peer down into the hole.

  “Starflight and Sunny must be right there,” Clay said. “Right below us!” The smoke smelled of old paper. He felt a twinge of pity for Starflight, burning some of his beloved scrolls.

  “So we’re close, but we have to find the entrance,” Tsunami said. “The tunnel must come out somewhere nearby.” She spiraled down to the rocky ground outside the bushes. She started pacing as if she were trying to count off the distance from the study room to the entrance tunnel.

  Clay stayed up in the air, circling. He had the same funny feeling he’d had looking at Tsunami’s crooked wing — that if he relaxed and just looked, he could see how things should fit together. He’d walked the caves under the mountain a million times. He knew them better than his own claws.

 
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