The dragonet prophecy, p.11
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.11

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Art! Clay thought furiously. As if Glory’s nothing more than a tapestry to hang on the wall, not a dragon with feelings and ideas and a destiny and friends who care about her.

  But why wasn’t Glory fighting it?

  And where was Sunny?

  Dragons in the lower seats began to applaud, and soon the whole stadium thundered with the beating of wings and talons. Queen Scarlet settled herself on a large flat boulder, looking pleased, and flicked her tail for silence.

  “Bring in the combatants,” she called.

  Peril swept in from the tunnel, waving to the crowd. Clay noticed that the applause was muted, as if most of the dragons weren’t really sure they wanted to cheer for her.

  Meanwhile three of the SkyWing guards flew up to the prisoner on Clay’s right. One of them seized the SandWing’s venomous tail and held it out of the way. The SandWing fought, howling angry curses, as the other two unclipped his wires and hooked them to a ring in the center of the ledge.

  Clay thought for a moment that the prisoner was going to hurl himself off the edge, despite the bands that were still on his wings. But the guards gripped him tightly and swooped him down to the sands below. They dropped him in a heap in the middle of the arena.

  Peril turned to look at him, her eyes glinting.

  Clay realized with a sickening lurch in his stomach that he was about to watch a dragon die.

  Clay didn’t want to watch. But he knew that if he might have to fight Peril one day, he should study her technique. He glanced up at the distant figures of Tsunami and Starflight. It looked like they were watching intently, too, along with most of the prisoners above the arena.

  One of the SkyWing guards stood in the center of the arena and clapped his wings thunderously until the audience was quiet. He bowed to the queen and announced, “After four wins, Horizon the SandWing — formerly, and unwisely, a soldier in Blaze’s army — has been challenged to a match with the Queen’s Champion, Peril. Claws up, fire ready! Fight!”

  He sprang out of the arena, leaving Peril and the SandWing facing each other. Horizon shrank back against the far wall, hissing.

  Peril stalked slowly toward him, tilting her copper wings to reflect the sunlight. Her long tail snaked across the sand. It still looked like smoke was rising from her scales.

  Horizon crouched, then suddenly leaped over Peril’s head and fled to the other side of the arena. He didn’t try to claw her or strike her on the way past; he didn’t even lash out with his poisonous tail. He just ran away.

  Why is he so afraid of her? Clay wondered uneasily.

  Peril turned in an unhurried way and smiled at Horizon. His black eyes darted left and right, searching for an escape. Suddenly he made a dash for the tunnel.

  All at once Peril was in his way, lashing her claws across his chest. It didn’t look like more than a scratch from what Clay could see, but Horizon screamed in agony and fell back, scrabbling across the sand.

  Peril followed, slashing another scratch along his side. Horizon screamed again. His banded wings flapped desperately, as if he were still trying to fly. Calmly, almost gently, Peril reached out and touched one of his wings, pinning it to his body.

  Horizon’s screams intensified into one long ear-shattering wail.

  Clay couldn’t understand it. She was only touching him — nothing more.

  Then Peril let go, and as she stepped back, Clay saw the scorched talon print she left behind on Horizon’s scales. It looked as if she had branded him, burning his skin without ever breathing fire. Clay squinted and realized there was smoke rising from Horizon’s scratches. Did Peril have fire in her claws? How was that possible?

  He looked across at Starflight’s slumped form, wishing that the NightWing was close enough to explain everything to him.

  Suddenly Horizon attacked. He flung himself at Peril, slashing at her eyes and jabbing his tail at her heart.

  Peril whirled, avoiding his claws, and knocked him to the sand. His barbed tail bounced off her scales with a spark like miniature lightning, and then burst into flames. Fire engulfed the poisoned tip, and Horizon howled in pain. Clay had never seen anything like it. He’d never heard of dragons setting other dragons on fire just by touching them.

  Horizon beat his tail against the sand, trying to put the fire out, as Peril feinted around him. She darted in to give him another scratch, but before she could dart away again, Horizon turned and grabbed her forearms in his talons. He threw his wings around her and buried his face in her shoulder with a high-pitched keening sound.

  Peril froze. Smoke billowed off the two dragons and black marks crawled along Horizon’s wings until they started disintegrating into ash. He crumpled slowly to the ground, and Peril crouched with him, holding him up with her wings.

  A violent shudder went through the SandWing’s whole body. He let go of Peril and flopped slowly onto his side on the sand. Disfiguring burns had melted his facial features, and his wings were charred into black strands between large holes. His talons had scorch marks in the center of their palms.

  Clay had a sudden, quick flash of memory. Kestrel had the same scorch marks on her talons. Had she fought with Peril, back when Kestrel lived in the SkyWing kingdom? How had she survived?

  Peril stood up, looking down at the dead SandWing. A disappointed murmur was starting to spread around the stadium. Her copper wings wavered, and she turned to glance up at Queen Scarlet.

  The queen sighed and stood up. “Well, that was boring,” she said. She raised her voice to address all the prisoners. “I hope some of you up there are braver than this pathetic creature.”

  Clay had never felt less brave. Peril was clearly a whole new category of monster. If Horizon couldn’t beat her, perhaps forcing a quick death — even a horrible one — was still a better choice than being killed slowly for the queen’s entertainment.

  “Don’t worry,” the queen said to the crowd, shaking out her wings. “We have a special treat tomorrow. Something we’ve never seen before! Hopefully this time someone will at least try to amuse me, unlike some dragons.” Queen Scarlet gave Horizon’s body a stern glare, turning her frown on Peril as well. Peril bowed her head and stared at the sand.

  “Dismissed,” said the queen with a wave of one talon. She turned and swept away. Clay leaned out as far as he dared, watching Glory sleep while the soldiers rolled her back into the tunnels.

  Maybe she was drugged. Maybe the queen had threatened her somehow. Maybe she was sick, or there was something else terribly wrong.

  He didn’t know who to worry about more — Glory, Sunny who was still missing, or Starflight, who might be thrown into battle tomorrow. Was that what the queen meant by “something we’ve never seen before”?

  Starflight was good at maps and dates and facts and tests, but his claw-to-claw combat skills were tragic.

  Clay wasn’t at all sure that Starflight could survive the arena.

  As the sun began to sink below the mountains, Clay dozed off, still worrying about his friends.

  He woke up to the smell of burnt prey and the growling of his stomach. Two of the moons were high overhead, while the third was a dim ivory blur glowing behind a distant peak. His eyes were finally starting to adjust to the bigness of everything. This view was just about the opposite of what he’d grown up with under the mountain.

  Clay twisted his head toward the smell of prey behind him and nearly toppled off the ledge in surprise.

  Peril was perched on the far side of his stone platform with her tail tucked around her legs and her wings folded in, as if she were trying to make herself as small as possible. Even so, there was only about the length of a dragon tail between them, and Clay could clearly feel the burning heat coming off her scales. It wasn’t a warm, basking heat like Sunny and Dune had. It felt like standing too close to an erupting volcano.

“Oh, good, finally,” she said. She nodded at a lump of meat on the rock between them. “I brought you something different. Well, I made the guard let me bring it. I hope you don’t mind that it’s a little crispy.” She spread her front talons in an oddly hopeless gesture.

  Clay peered at the prey, which smelled like smoky duck. He wanted it, but he was afraid of getting any closer to Peril. What if she burned him, even by accident?

  “I’ll be careful,” she said, guessing his thoughts. “I’ll stay really still, I promise.” She glanced around at the slumbering prisoners. “I just thought it might be less obvious if I sat here instead of flying around you.”

  She didn’t sound like a monster. Clay couldn’t put this quiet dragon together with the brutal killer he’d seen earlier that day.

  He scraped the duck toward him, then devoured it in two bites. It tasted like ash and crunched strangely between his teeth.

  “Oh dear,” Peril said. “That was fast. Do you want another one?”

  “I’m all right,” Clay said.

  She scraped one claw across the rocks. “Do you want me to go away?”

  “No,” he said, and she looked up, surprised. “Stay and talk to me,” he offered.

  “Aren’t you afraid of me? Now that you’ve seen what I can do?”

  “Of course I am,” he said honestly. “But you’re still better company than the pigeons. All they want to talk about is nest design and who to poop on.”

  Peril barked a laugh. She seemed much more subdued than she had been when they first met. He studied her face in the moonlight. “Are — are you all right?” he asked.

  Peril blinked several times fast. Instead of answering, she said, “That was weird today, wasn’t it?”

  “What was weird?”

  “The SandWing — Horizon — the way he just gave up.” She opened and closed her wings, and Clay flinched. “Why would he do that?” Peril went on. “It’s poor form. I guess I should have pushed him away to make him keep fighting. Her Majesty was pretty angry.”

  “At you?” Clay said. “That doesn’t seem fair.”

  Peril blinked again. “Really?” she said. “It doesn’t?” She shook her head. “No, the queen is right. It’s my responsibility to make the fight exciting if the other dragon won’t do it.”

  “Why do you do what she says?” Clay asked. “Do you — like fighting?” What he really wanted to ask was “Do you like killing?” but he was afraid of what the answer might be. Would he like killing, if he’d been given the chance to do it over and over again with no consequences? Was that the kind of dragon he was supposed to be? Would he like it if he had to do it tomorrow, in the arena?

  “Of course,” Peril said. “I’m good at fighting — and not much else. And she’s my queen. I’m her champion.”

  “Why you?” Clay asked, risking getting closer to his real question: What’s wrong with you?

  “No one else wants me,” Peril said matter-of-factly. “No one can even touch me. You saw that. I was born with too much fire. Usually when dragons like me hatch, the SkyWings drop them off the highest mountain peak. That’s what my mother was going to do, but Queen Scarlet saved me and killed her to punish her.” Her eyes went cold at the words my mother.

  “Wow,” Clay said faintly.

  “Yeah,” said Peril. “If you want to know everything, I burned up my twin in our egg. I sucked all the fire out of him and scorched him to a crisp.” She shrugged, but there was a wobbliness to her voice.

  “I attacked the other eggs in my nest when I hatched,” Clay said. It felt really strange to say out loud. “At least, that’s what the big dragons told me. They said I tried to kill my nestmates. I don’t remember it.”

  Peril tilted her head. “So maybe we were both born to kill other dragons,” she said. Clay wished she didn’t sound so happy about it. Maybe she’s right. Maybe she’s the monster I could be, if I let myself.

  “I don’t really want to do that,” he admitted. “I like fighting, but the only thing I’ve ever killed is prey.”

  “Her Majesty said I might as well follow my true nature,” Peril said. “That’s how she raised me — letting me be myself, giving me dragons to kill. Maybe you’d feel better if you could be who you really are.”

  “I hope that’s not who I am,” Clay said. In the moonlight, Peril’s expression changed, and he realized he’d hurt her feelings. “Not — not that —” he stammered. Nice work, Clay. How are you going to finish that sentence? “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a killer”? Or maybe, “But it seems to be going great for you”? “I mean — maybe I was born that way, but does that mean I’m like that forever? I guess I hope I have a choice, is all. I want to be who I want to be, not who I have to be. Right? Do you ever — I mean, wouldn’t you want to be different, if you could be anyone?”

  “No,” Peril said, clawing at the rock under her talons. “I’ve accepted myself, and I like myself this way. You should do the same thing.” Something clattered far below them, and Peril jumped. “I’d better go,” she said.

  “Wait,” Clay said. “Please. Who’s supposed to fight tomorrow? Can you talk to the queen? Tell her not to send in the NightWing. He’s not ready for the arena.”

  “Are you serious?” Peril said. “She’d be furious. She’s so excited to see him fight.”

  “Tell her I volunteer instead,” Clay blurted. “Tell her I’m ready, and I promise I’ll make it exciting.”

  Peril was already shaking her head. “I can’t. I’m forbidden to talk to you. She was really mad when she found out I visited you before. I guess you’re not like the other prisoners.”

  Clay paused, thinking. That was strange. Why did Queen Scarlet care if Peril talked to him? “But you came to see me anyway?”

  She shuffled her talons and looked a little embarrassed. “Yeah, I don’t know why. I mean, it didn’t seem fair. I like talking to you. Her Majesty never has time to talk to me, and my only other friend is old and tells the same stories over and over again. You’re blazing.”

  So she doesn’t obey every order Queen Scarlet gives her. Good to know.

  He realized she was looking at him hopefully. “Uh,” he said. “You’re … blazing, too?”

  Peril grinned, sharp white teeth flashing in the moonlight. “That’s what Her Majesty says. She likes me the way I am and nobody else ever has. Until you.”

  Yikes, Clay thought. He wasn’t sure he did like her the way she was. Or that he wanted to be best friends with a dragon who was planning to kill him eventually.

  But there was something not entirely awful about Peril — an awkwardness and sadness that he kind of understood. And maybe there was a chance he could talk her out of the whole killing plan. Maybe that was why Queen Scarlet didn’t want her talking to him.

  In the meanwhile, though, he had to focus on saving Starflight.

  “Listen,” he said, “could you talk to her about Starflight anyway? What if you acted like you came up with it yourself? A MudWing is still something new, right? So send me in first and save him for later. Besides, if he dies in his first fight, that would be a waste, wouldn’t it?” He swallowed the lump that rose in his throat at the idea of Starflight dying.

  “You think he would?” Peril said, gazing out at the circle of prisoners. Even with the bright light of the moons, it was hard to see the dark lump of dragon on Starflight’s pedestal. “Can’t he use his powers? Reading minds and all that?”

  Poor Starflight. Clay wondered if a normal NightWing, raised around other NightWings, would already have his powers by now.

  He didn’t want Peril and Queen Scarlet to know that Starflight was powerless, but he didn’t want them to risk Starflight’s life because they thought he could do something special.

  “They’re a little unpredictable,” he hazarded. “He’s not full
grown, you know. He’s still learning how to use them. Although, of course, they’re very scary when they work.” He hoped the SkyWings had no more information about NightWing powers than Starflight’s scrolls did.

  “Oh,” Peril said. “That makes sense.” Her tail twitched over her talons as she thought. Clay tried to sidle a bit closer to the edge, away from her blistering heat. “All right,” she said finally. “I’ll try.”

  “Thank you,” Clay said.

  Peril spread her wings to fly away and then hesitated, looking at him. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”

  Clay tried to think what she meant.

  “Kill yourself like that,” she said. “The way Horizon did.” She coughed, and a small ring of smoke puffed out of her snout.

  Clay had no idea what he would do if he ever had to fight Peril. It sounded even more terrifying than swimming down the underground river. He met her eerie blue eyes and realized that she looked very worried.

  “I don’t think so,” he said truthfully. He couldn’t imagine choosing to die that way. And he didn’t think he was brave enough to do it either.

  “Oh, good,” she said. “I’d much rather kill you fair and square. Well, good night.” She leaped up into the air and beat her wings, sending a wave of heat over Clay’s scales.

  He felt very unsettled as he watched her spiral down to the arena.

  Peril was the first dragon he’d met outside the mountain, if you didn’t count Queen Scarlet. Maybe she wasn’t as strange as he thought. Maybe switching between friendly conversation and violence was normal for a dragon.

  But somehow he didn’t think so.

  Was she right about his true nature? If he’d been raised like her, killing dragons and feeding the monster inside him, maybe he’d be less worried all the time. Maybe he needed to accept that part of him, like she had. But would his friends still like him? Would he be more or less worthy of the prophecy that way?

  One thing was for sure. Whenever he did end up in the arena, he’d find out how he felt about killing pretty fast.

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