The dragonet prophecy, p.13
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.13

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “I’ve never met an IceWing,” Clay said, edging back a step. “I’ve never met much of anyone, really. I mean, I guess I read that you were all the color of ice, but I didn’t realize ice came in so many colors. Like, you know, blue. Very surprising. It’s cool, though. Oh, ha ha, no pun intended.”

  “Boooo!” called several dragons from the upper seats. “More blood! More death! Somebody bite somebody!”

  “Are you trying to get us both killed?” the IceWing growled. “Shut up and let me kill you.”

  “I’d rather not,” Clay said, stumbling back another few steps. A flicker of movement caught his eye, and he glanced up into the sky. Starflight was nearly leaning all the way off his column, flailing his tail and bound wings frantically at Clay. Trying to tell him something. But what?

  Something about IceWings. Something they’d learned from the scrolls and lectures.

  Something pretty important, judging from the way Starflight was freaking out.

  The NightWing was pointing to his mouth. Fire? Clay looked at Fjord dubiously. He didn’t think IceWings could breathe fire. Wouldn’t they end up melting their palaces every time they used it?

  Then again, Fjord was definitely doing something with his mouth, and it wasn’t smiling.

  Clay ducked and rolled out of the way just as a blast of what looked like sparkling smoke shot out of Fjord’s mouth. A tiny bit of it brushed his wing tip, and Clay felt a horrible chill rattle through his whole body.

  Oh, right. Freezing-death breath. That is important. Thanks, Starflight.

  Now he remembered the freezing streams of cold air that IceWings could shoot from their mouths. Of course, he couldn’t remember anything about how to fight it.

  Fire would probably help, though. Clay inhaled, pulling the warmth up from his chest as Fjord’s head snapped around toward him. The IceWing opened his mouth to breathe on Clay again, and Clay sent a blast of fire right between his teeth.

  Fjord jerked back and scrambled across the sand, batting at his mouth with his clamped wings. The flames had been swallowed instantly by the chill of his scales, but the IceWing looked even angrier than before.

  “Sorry,” Clay said. “Listen, do we have to fight? What’ll happen to us if we —”

  Fjord interrupted by racing at him with his front talons outstretched. Clay had to shut up and dart out of the way, barely dodging the sharp claws. Fjord’s long, whip-thin tail snaked around and whacked him across the face so Clay was momentarily blinded.

  Instinctively Clay threw his wings over his head and lashed out with his back talons. He felt one connect and heard Fjord roar with pain. As his sight cleared, he saw that he’d accidentally hit the scratch on Fjord’s neck, which was bleeding again.

  Fjord fell back for a moment, touching his neck gingerly with his claws. His tail lashed, and his bound wings beat the air.

  How am I going to get out of this? Clay thought. He couldn’t feel a monster rising up inside him. Whatever had driven him to attack the other dragonets at hatching was buried too deep. He didn’t want to kill Fjord. He didn’t want to kill anyone.

  He wondered if he should have let Tsunami fight instead. No, I’m the first-hatched and the biggest. I couldn’t let any of the others risk themselves when I could fight for them. He clawed at the sand and lowered his head to stare into Fjord’s eyes. I have to kill him, don’t I? There must be a part of me that can do that.

  He’d always hoped his monster wouldn’t be necessary. Some part of him had always figured that the prophecy would somehow come true, the war would end, and all dragon killing could be avoided forever and ever … without him ever having to hurt another dragon.

  But it’s too soon for the prophecy. Our fault, for escaping early.

  Still, we had to, to save Glory —

  “BOOOOOOOOOO!” more dragons in the crowd shouted. “A sheep could have won this fight by now! What are you doing? Thinking? Less thinking! More killing! Claw him, claw him, claw him!”

  They sound just like Kestrel. Clay couldn’t tell if they were rooting for him or for Fjord — or whether they just wanted to see someone die.

  Fjord dropped to all fours and ran at Clay again, hissing with his tongue as if he were about to shoot more freezing air.

  Kestrel’s shouted battle commands flashed through Clay’s head. He dropped and rolled under Fjord as the IceWing flew at him. With a quick slash, Clay raked Fjord’s underbelly, leaving a trail of blood through the softer scales. He flipped back upright and spun to face the other dragon again.

  Fjord shrieked, doubling over.

  “YAAAAYYYYYY!” shouted the crowd.

  “What is wrong with you?” Fjord yelled at Clay. “That’s not how MudWings fight! I was trained in your techniques!”

  “Well, I wasn’t,” Clay said. “Sorry.” He wondered whether he fought like a SkyWing instead, the way Kestrel had always wanted. He had a feeling she would say no, he didn’t fight like a SkyWing, he fought like a lame wildebeest. But at least it seemed to catch his opponent off guard.

  Clay dug his claws into the sand, watching Fjord clutch his bleeding belly. If he attacked now, he could surprise the other dragon and maybe even win. But he felt bad enough, seeing the damage he’d inflicted. He couldn’t imagine doing worse — like what? Could he break Fjord’s neck? He shuddered, remembering again the crack of Dune’s neck snapping. That wasn’t him, no matter what Kestrel or Peril said.

  “All right, dragons.” Queen Scarlet’s voice cut through the rumble of the crowd, and everyone went still. “Fjord and Clay, we don’t have all day. Some of us have kingdoms to run. One of you kill the other one right now, or I’m coming down there to end you both myself.”

  Fjord snarled and dashed at Clay again. There was no time to think. Clay reared up and grabbed the extra horns around Fjord’s head, shoving the IceWing’s snout aside before the freezing breath hit him. The cold air blasted toward the lowest row of seats, and several dragons clambered over each other to get away, yelping with alarm.

  Fjord’s talons locked around Clay’s chest, and they grappled across the sand. Clay’s wings were pummeled by Fjord’s, which were silvery and strangely tough. His talons were full trying to keep Fjord’s head pointing away from him. He couldn’t fight back as Fjord clawed his shoulders. Bright pain zigzagged through Clay’s scales.

  “Time to die,” Fjord growled. He whipped his tail around to trip Clay’s back legs and the two dragons went down in a heap with Fjord on top. The IceWing wrapped his claws around Clay’s neck and pressed hard.

  Failing again, Clay thought hopelessly as the strength in his arms began to fade. For the last time. In a moment he’d have to let go, the IceWing’s head would be free, and Fjord would blast Clay with a final killing breath.

  Then it would all be over.

  Clay closed his eyes. He couldn’t bear to see the circle of prisoners up in the sky, knowing that Tsunami and Starflight were up there watching him die.

  He heard a faraway yell, and Fjord’s head jerked up. Clay opened his eyes again and saw that the IceWing was looking up at the prisoners. So was everyone else in the stadium. He followed their gaze and saw a blue dragon far overhead, thrashing in the net of wires above the arena. The other prisoners were shouting and scrabbling to hold on to their rock towers as the weight of the dragon threatened to drag them all down.

  It was Tsunami. She must have thrown herself off her prison cell, trying to get to Clay. But the wires held her fast, and she was fighting like an insect caught in a spiderweb.

  “Get up there!” Queen Scarlet roared, and all the SkyWing guards around her lifted off at once.

  This is my chance, Clay thought. Fjord was distracted. Now he should kill him. He should. He had to. If he could have killed his nestmates in their eggs, he should be able to kill this dragon who had nothing to do with him.
r />   But he still couldn’t. He kept thinking, Fjord is as much a prisoner as I am. Why should I get to live instead of him?

  This is why the prophecy is doomed — because of me.

  So Clay was the only one looking at the ice dragon when a jet of small black droplets spattered against the side of Fjord’s face and neck.

  Fjord flinched in surprise and automatically reached up with one talon to wipe his face clean. But before his claws reached his snout, both dragons heard a hissing noise. Clay stared in shock as the black drops started to bubble and smoke. The scales underneath them began to melt.

  Then Fjord screamed.

  It was the worst sound Clay had ever heard. The dragon Peril had killed had screamed in this kind of agony, but to be right underneath the dying dragon, his screams piercing Clay’s ears, was so much worse.

  One of the drops had landed in Fjord’s eye, and that was the first thing to disintegrate, leaving a smoking black cavity in his skull. The side of his face slowly dropped away like ice melting. Fjord lurched off Clay, clawing at his own neck. The spray was eating into his open wound.

  Clay covered his eyes, feeling sick. Why couldn’t death be clean, painless, and fast, if it had to happen at all?

  It finally occurred to him to wonder who had sprayed the IceWing. It must have come from the direction of the queen’s balcony. He looked up and saw only three faces up there, staring down at him and Fjord. The rest of the guards were up in the sky, dealing with Tsunami and the other prisoners.

  Queen Scarlet, who looked pleased.

  Glory, who looked asleep.

  And Peril, who looked … frightened.

  After Fjord finally died, to the sounds of uproarious cheering, Clay was flown back to his tower and locked down again. He could see that extra chains and wires had been added to Tsunami’s cell, and the prisoners on either side of her kept shouting angry things about how she’d nearly killed them. But she waved her tail at Clay, and he felt a tiny bit better, though not much.

  He hadn’t won fairly. He hadn’t found the strength in him to kill. He hadn’t even wanted Fjord to die. Something — someone else — had killed Fjord for him. And yet there was a ball of wrenching guilt sitting in his stomach. Guilt about Fjord; about Dune; about Glory’s weird drugged state; about Sunny, wherever she was; about Starflight, who’d never survive the arena; and about Tsunami, who might, but only if she didn’t get herself killed doing crazy things first.

  He couldn’t eat the pig dropped off by the SkyWing guard that afternoon. He just watched gloomily as it ran around his platform, squealing in terror, until it blundered over the edge. Then he felt bad about that, too.

  Feeling sorry for prey. Some hero dragon you are.

  Clay kept his back to the arena during the afternoon fight, which was between a SeaWing and a scavenger the queen had found in the woods. He’d thought queens would be more careful around scavengers after what happened to Oasis, but now that he saw how pathetic they were, he understood why Queen Scarlet didn’t worry about them. The scavenger was allowed to keep his funny little weapons, but they didn’t do him much good. The fight was over quickly. Clay covered his ears so he wouldn’t have to listen to the munching and crunching and the cheering crowd.

  He slept a little that evening, but his sleep was full of nightmares and dying dragons.

  It was almost a relief to wake up after dark and find Peril huddled in the same spot as before. Even the heat wafting from her scales was welcome, as the winds were stronger and colder than ever.

  “Oh, hi,” she said in a rush. “You were amazing today. Although I have no idea what you did. I was looking at the prisoners and then suddenly — well, yikes. That was scarier than me. I mean, I’m pretty scary. But, wow. How did you do that? You don’t have to tell me. I mean, you might have to do it to me. You probably will. Which is the scariest thing ever. It was like — I never thought what it might be like, sitting up here watching me kill other dragons. And then I’m the one watching, and thinking, that’s going to happen to me. So. But still amazing. Can you tell me? You don’t have to tell me.”

  “Stop,” Clay said, worn out with guilt and worrying. “Peril, it wasn’t me. I didn’t do — that — to Fjord.”

  She exhaled, and a small burst of fire shot from her nose. “It’s all right,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d tell me. I’d keep it secret, too.”

  “No, seriously,” Clay said. “I think it was Queen Scarlet. She wanted me to win. She must have done something while everyone else was distracted.”

  Peril looked skeptical. “I’ve never seen her do anything like that before,” she said. “But I guess she might. She definitely doesn’t have a problem with cheating.” She spread her talons, opening and closing her claws as if offering herself as an example. “I guess she might have found the poison in her treasury somewhere.”

  “Have you seen my friend Sunny?” Clay asked. He was starting to feel the pain of the scratches across his back and the bruises on his throat.

  “Oh! Yes,” Peril said. She looked at him sideways with sly blue-flame eyes. “That’s why I came. I’ll tell you where she is, but I need you to do something for me. And if you won’t do it, I won’t tell you.”

  Clay tried to move his aching wings, but they felt stiff and sore. He could tell that dried blood was caked through his scales and the spiny ridge along his back. “You don’t have to do that, Peril. I’d help you anyway.”

  “Sure,” she said. “Well. We’ll see. It’s not an easy thing. And you might get in trouble. I’d definitely get in trouble, if Her Majesty found out.” She scratched at the rock underneath her.

  “I don’t mind,” Clay said. “I’m in enough trouble anyway. Is Sunny all right?”

  Peril scowled as she answered. “Yes, she’s fine. Not a scratch on her. Eating like a queen. Making friends with all the guards. It’s a little nauseating, if you want to know the truth.”

  “That’s Sunny,” Clay said, exhaling with relief. “What do you want me to do?”

  “She told me I wasn’t allowed to watch!” Peril burst out. “I’m the only dragon in the whole Sky Kingdom who’s supposed to stay away from the arena tomorrow. It’s not fair!”

  “Why?” Clay asked, his stomach sinking. What new horrible battle did Queen Scarlet have planned? “What’s happening?”

  “I don’t even know!” Peril flared. “It’s some kind of trial! Doesn’t that sound boring? Why would she keep me away from that? I wouldn’t have cared until she told me not to go. Listening to dragons talk about laws is about as exciting as picking sheep fluff out of your teeth. Plus it always ends the same way anyhow. Queen Scarlet just likes the drama of trials and formal executions. Nobody’s ever innocent.”

  “Kestrel,” Clay said. “It must be Kestrel’s trial. Queen Scarlet said something about that.”

  “Well, whoever she is, I want to watch,” Peril said stubbornly. “So I thought maybe if I hid up here, behind you . . .”

  Clay glanced around. The IceWing to his left was asleep. The platform to his right was still empty. If he stood at the edge of his prison and spread his wings, and Peril crouched down, he might be able to shield her from the eyes of the queen.

  He tried opening his wings again and winced. The clamp bent the outside of his wing in, as if it were rolled under and pinned up. But he still should have been able to open most of his wing, even if he couldn’t fly with it.

  “I’m too sore,” he said to Peril. “I mean, I’ll try. But I can’t really open my wings right now, so I don’t know if I can hide you.”

  Peril frowned. “Let me see,” she said, pointing to his back imperiously.

  He hunched around until his back was toward her. She drew in a sharp breath.

  “That sounds bad,” he said, trying to twist his neck around to see. “It can’t be that bad. Kestre
l believes that pain teaches you stuff, so trust me, I’ve been clawed before.”

  “Not by an IceWing, I bet,” she said. “They have ridged claws so they can grip the ice as they walk. It’s like getting clawed four times with each claw instead of once. Can you picture that?”

  “Um, sort of,” Clay said. “It feels better with you near it.”

  “It does?”

  “Like, the heat, I mean,” he said, embarrassed, although he wasn’t sure why. “It’s better than the wind.”

  “I don’t know how to fix it,” she said, sounding frustrated and helpless. He felt her heat draw a little closer. “I guess I could stand here, if that helps.”

  Clay remembered the poison cave under the mountain and the stinging pain under his scales. He wondered if the same treatment would work here. “There is one thing,” he said hesitantly. “If it’s not asking too much — I think putting mud on the scratches might help.”

  “Oh my gosh, of course,” she cried. “That’s it! I can get you mud! Wait here.” She sprang off the tower and flew away.

  “Wait here,” Clay echoed to empty space. “Because I was going to go where? For a walk?”

  He pulled his wings in and tried to huddle against the wind, but it howled at him from every direction, and the tower was even colder now that Peril was gone. The pain felt worse and worse as the moments ticked by and the moons rose higher in the sky. He was shivering badly by the time he saw her spiraling up toward him.

  Between her front talons, she was carrying a large rock cauldron, filled with thick brown mud. Clay twisted around to watch her as she landed behind him.

  “Where’d you get that?” he asked.

  Peril nodded at one of the distant walls of the queen’s palace. Clay squinted and saw the reflected glint of moonlight off a cascading waterfall.

  “The Diamond Spray River starts at the bottom of that wall,” Peril said. “It leads all the way to the sea. At least, that’s what I hear. I’ve never left the Sky Kingdom.” She stuck one of her claws into the cauldron. Clay watched curiously as the mud began bubbling and boiling.

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