The dragonet prophecy, p.15
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.15

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Peril darted at him, talons outstretched, but he twisted away from her and she stopped, helpless. If she caught him, the burns would kill him just as much as the fall would, perhaps even more painfully. Clay saw her claws reach out again anyway, but it was too late.

  Osprey flapped his wings in one last burst of energy, but he couldn’t right himself. He hit the sand at an awkward angle. Every dragon in the arena heard the ripping and snapping of bones breaking and wings tearing as he tumbled. He collapsed near the arena wall. Peril landed beside him.

  Queen Scarlet fluttered delicately back onto her balcony perch. “I hope this has been a lesson to any other dragons who were thinking of teaching my champion bad habits,” she said, glaring around the arena.

  “He’s not dead,” Peril said, clawing at the sand.

  “He will be soon.” Queen Scarlet waved a dismissive claw. “Now. I won’t argue with the Champion’s Shield. The champion has asked to stand for the prisoner. I will choose her opponent, and they will battle at the end of the games tomorrow. If she wins, Kestrel goes free. If not, well, I’ll have a dead champion, but at least we’ll get to execute Kestrel right afterward. All in all, a wonderfully bloody day for me and Queen Burn to look forward to.”

  The cold wind whipped around Clay, piercing the wounds on his back and whistling through his scales. Burn was coming here. Tomorrow. And when she left, she’d be taking Sunny with her.

  “All right,” Peril said, staring down at Osprey’s last dying spasms. “Tomorrow, then.” She reached for Osprey’s talons and stopped, her claws hovering over his, agonizingly close but not touching.

  “Of course we’ll have to lock Kestrel back up,” said Queen Scarlet. “We wouldn’t want her to try escaping again. You understand.”

  “Fine.” Peril turned and looked at Kestrel. They faced each other as Vermilion dismissed the crowd, and dragons began to pour out of the arena, buzzing with excitement.

  When most of the crowd was gone, Kestrel pointed to the chains around her mouth. She wanted to talk to Peril.

  “No,” Peril said as one of the guards stepped forward. She stared into Kestrel’s eyes. “You killed my brother. You left me here. And it’s your fault my friend is dead. I may not want you dead, but I don’t want to know you.”

  She turned and left the arena. The guards dragged Kestrel away under Queen Scarlet’s triumphant smile.

  Clay’s head was spinning. He tried to catch Tsunami’s eye, but she was storming around her platform, clawing angrily at the air. Across from him, Starflight was sitting up and looking at the sky.

  Clay tried to think. If Peril succeeded in freeing Kestrel, surely Kestrel would try to free the dragonets as well. Maybe she’d go to the Talons of Peace for help.

  But by then it might be too late, at least for some of them. Certainly for Sunny, who would be on her way to the SandWing stronghold in Burn’s clutches. And perhaps for Starflight, who would have to fight in the arena tomorrow. Maybe even for Tsunami and Clay himself, if they had to fight, too.

  No, they couldn’t wait for Kestrel. They had to escape before the games tomorrow. Clay wondered if Peril would help them, now that she knew how the queen had betrayed her.

  He waited hopefully for her to come back, but the day wore on with no more activity in the arena below. The hot sun baked the mud on his back until it began crumbling away into dust, while the wind yanked at his tail and his wings like a dragonet playing with prey. And Peril never came.

  When the guard dropped off another pig at midday, Clay tried to ask him to take a message to Peril. But the guard snorted fire at him, scaring the pig right into Clay’s talons, and flew away without responding. The only good news was he didn’t notice the broken wire attached to Clay’s front right talon.

  By the time the sun started drifting down over the western peaks, Clay was getting anxious. Was Peril all right? What if Queen Scarlet decided to get rid of her before she could fight for Kestrel?

  Heavy wingbeats in the distance distracted him from his worries. He looked up as a score of SandWings appeared from the west, outlined by the red glow of the setting sun. The largest was in the lead, with the others fanned out in a V formation behind her. They swooped toward the queen’s palace, staying in perfect lines, and vanished beyond a distant wall, where Clay guessed the landing field for visitors was.

  Burn was here.

  She was the biggest and meanest of the three rivals for the SandWing throne. She held the SandWing palace stronghold. From what Clay could remember, she was the most likely to win the war — and the most likely to kill anyone who got in her way.

  Dune had warned them that she was the most dangerous dragon in Pyrrhia, even meaner than Queen Scarlet. They knew the story of what she did to the SkyWing egg before they all hatched. Scarlet was bad enough, but Burn was the worst possible dragon to get her claws on the dragonets of destiny.

  It seemed like only a few moments had passed when Clay saw the lead dragon come winging back over the wall toward the arena. As she flew closer, he could see her muscles rippling in her back like wind over sand dunes. Her poisonous tail was coiled up above her and her black eyes were staring straight at Clay.

  He found himself crouching lower as she swept overhead. Her neck whipped around to keep her eyes on him as she flew in a circle, around and around just above him. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t read her expression at all.

  After a minute, she hissed at him with a forked black tongue. She darted away to circle over Tsunami’s head, and then Starflight’s. Even Tsunami seemed cowed by this silent inspection. All three dragonets stayed still and watched her, until Burn flew away again and disappeared into the palace.

  We have to get out of here, Clay thought. Now. Tonight. He couldn’t imagine what those dark eyes would see in Sunny. He had a horrible feeling Burn would “collect” the little SandWing by killing, stuffing, and mounting her on the wall.

  But it was impossible. This was worse than their situation under the mountain. There, at least, they’d been together. Clay wasn’t the clever thinker of the group. He couldn’t come up with bright ideas and brilliant escape plans all by himself.

  He realized Peril hadn’t kept her end of the bargain by telling him where Sunny was. So even if he could get down from his prison, he’d have no idea how to find Sunny in the vast SkyWing palace.

  Had Peril forgotten about him? Or was she angry for some reason?

  Clay paced, fretting, and the loose wire whacked at his other talons. He peered down at it. The sun was just a golden sliver against the mountains, and the moons were only starting to climb the sky, so he didn’t have much light.

  He held up his free talon to the last of the sunlight. The wire had a curious clasp that held it in place around his leg as long as it was mostly taut. But now that the wire was loose at one end, he could see how to slide it out by worrying it with one claw. The other end had once been attached to Horizon, the SandWing prisoner Peril had killed. Now it was clipped to a ring in the center of the empty rock platform, which was why no one else had noticed that it was swinging free.

  After a few moments of poking the clasp, Clay was able to work the wire off his leg. He was left with a stretch of wire about the length of his own tail. It was made of a hard sinewy metal that gleamed silvery-pink in the last rays of the sun — the same stuff in the bands on his wings. He could guess that it was fireproof, or other prisoners would have blazed through the wires long before him. Which meant Peril’s scales must be significantly hotter than regular fire, to blaze through the wire so easily.

  Clay glanced around. Most of the prisoners were curled up to sleep for the night. It was only sunset, but there was not much else to do up on the rock columns. There were no guards in sight. There must be some kind of welcome banquet happening for Burn. Hopefully all the SkyWing soldiers would be there, feasting and laying bets
on the gladiator fights scheduled for tomorrow. And hopefully Peril would be in her room, the closest cave to the arena. If he could just get her attention … if he could only talk to her, maybe she’d find a way to save them.

  He wrapped one end of the wire around each of his front talons and tried sawing it across the wire that extended from his neck out into the web. He’d hoped it would slice through or something useful like that, but both wires looked undamaged when he stopped.

  But as he slid the wires across each other, an eerie note echoed across the arena, like the lone cry of a bird or the last hum of a harp string.

  That was kind of cool, Clay thought. He wondered if he could make different notes. He tried sliding the wire farther away from him, then closer to his neck, and then he tried the other three wires attached to his legs. The sounds were different — higher, lower — but still with that eerie, melancholy quality to them.

  Maybe Peril will hear this and come talk to me, Clay thought. But how would she know it wasn’t just the wind or owls calling?

  A song. The only song he knew was the one Tsunami sometimes sang to annoy the guardians — about the dragonets coming to save the day. Still. Maybe that’ll tell her it’s me calling.

  He tried the wires again until he found the notes he wanted. It was fully dark now, with only a distant glimmer of moonlight creeping up the mountains. He couldn’t see the prisoners across the arena from him at all, but he hoped Starflight and Tsunami would be listening.

  Clay concentrated, sliding the wires in order.

  Oh, the dragonets are coming. . . .

  He paused. It was too slow. When Tsunami sang it, the song was fast and fierce, so you could imagine a hall full of dragons roaring it at top volume. But Clay couldn’t get between the wires quickly enough to get the notes right and keep that tempo.

  He tried again.

  They’re coming to save the day. . . .

  The notes echoed around the arena, soft and mournful. How would Peril ever recognize it? It sounded like ghosts of ancient dragons whispering from under the sands.

  Maybe if he kept practicing.

  They’re coming to fight … for they know what’s right. … the dragonets . . .

  Clay stopped. The last “hooray!” would sound particularly ridiculous as an ancient ghost whisper. This was hopeless.

  “Oh, the dragonets are coming. . . .”

  Clay leaned forward. Was that an echo coming back to him?

  But … he could clearly hear words in it. . . .

  “They’re coming to save the day . . .” He swiveled his head to the left. That was definitely a voice — a second voice.

  And neither one was Tsunami, because these dragons could actually sing.

  “They’re coming to fight … for they know what’s right … the dragonets . . .”

  Now there were at least six voices, all as soft and haunting as the notes from the wires. They slowly faded out, leaving off the last hooray just as Clay had done.

  The prisoners were singing.

  Clay set his wires together and began to play again. This time one voice after another joined in. As the arena began to fill with moonlight, Clay saw the prisoner to his left, the IceWing, with her silvery head stretched toward the sky, singing.

  He picked up the pace a little the fourth time around, although the notes still had that eerie, plaintive sound. Even if this didn’t get Peril’s attention, the singing filled him with a wild, hopeful feeling. It seemed like every prisoner in the sky was singing now. He was pretty sure he could even hear Tsunami’s croaky voice and Starflight’s pure tenor.

  This song meant something, even to dragons hardened on the battlefield and in the arena. They believed in the dragonets and the prophecy. For the first time, Clay’s dreams of doing something big and legendary and helpful seemed like they belonged to this world instead of his imagination.

  They were on their sixth time through the song, all of them singing wholeheartedly, when a blast of fire shot through the arena doors below and Queen Scarlet stormed onto the sand with Burn right behind her.

  “Stop that infernal noise right now!” Burn roared.

  The singing broke off at once. Clay quickly hid the wire in a fold of his wing, although he didn’t think the queens could see the prisoners very well, up in the dark.

  “You,” Queen Scarlet growled, pointing at Tsunami. “And you.” She pointed at Starflight. “And — well, probably not you, but get down here anyway,” she snarled at Clay.

  SkyWing soldiers spilled out of the tunnel and soared up to the three dragonets. Clay realized they were about to discover his missing wire. He lunged away from the two who’d come to get him, flapping and whacking their heads with his wings.

  “Here, stop it or we’ll drop you,” one of them snarled.

  “But he’s a —” the other one started.

  “Shhhh,” said the first. “You heard the queen. We don’t call them that.”

  It was enough. In the confusion and the dark, they each thought the other had unclipped that leg, and they flew him down to the sand without catching their mistake.

  Tsunami and Starflight both gave Clay concerned looks, and he realized he must still have a fair amount of blood and mud crusted to his scales.

  “Bring them this way,” Queen Scarlet snapped, stomping into the tunnel with Burn. Clay reached out and brushed wings with Tsunami as they were shoved along. Whatever happened next, at least he was with his friends now.

  They stopped at Peril’s cave. Peril was resting her head on one of the narrow window ledges, staring out at the sky. She turned and gave Queen Scarlet a cold look.

  Clay noticed that the full-length portrait of the queen was gone from the wall. A pile of ashes smoldered on the floor under the spot where it had been. He saw the queen’s eyes dart to the empty wall, and more smoke curled from her nose.

  “Out,” she said to Peril.

  “This is my room!” Peril snapped back.

  “I’m the queen here,” Scarlet said. “You do as I say. Go sleep in the arena. If anyone else tries to sing, fly up and burn out his tongue.”

  Peril’s tail lashed furiously. A moment passed, and then she stormed toward the door. The two queens had to scurry out of her path in a very undignified way, and Clay saw a few of the SkyWing guards hiding smiles.

  The wave of Peril’s heat swept over them, and she hurried off down the tunnel, barely glancing at Clay as she went by. He stared after her, worried. Maybe she is mad at me. But why?

  “In here,” Queen Scarlet said, shoving Starflight into Peril’s cave herself. He stumbled trying to jump over the pool of water and ended up with his back legs splashing around for a moment. Tsunami shook her guards away and hopped over the pool, and then Clay followed.

  “You will not interrupt my feast again,” Queen Scarlet hissed. “I’m sure you’re very amused with yourselves.”

  “Why don’t you kill them?” Burn asked. She was much bigger than Scarlet; her head scraped the top of the tunnel, and her talons were twice the size of Clay’s. She wore no precious jewels or chain mail, but her claws and teeth were stained red from all the blood she had shed, and a vicious scar was burned along her left side, below the wing. There was no white to her eyes at all; they were orbs of pure, menacing black.

  “Because that wouldn’t be fun,” Queen Scarlet answered. “I want to see them fight. We have a whole day of entertainment planned for tomorrow. It’s my hatching day! I want it to be thrilling.”

  Clay was starting to hate the word thrilling.

  Burn gave the SkyWing guards a glare, and they quickly shuffled up the tunnel, out of earshot. She lowered her voice so only Scarlet and the dragonets could hear her. “But if they are the dragonets of the prophecy, then the best way to break the prophecy is to kill them.”

Well,” Scarlet said. Her tongue flicked in and out of her mouth as she regarded Starflight. Clay could tell she still wanted to see a NightWing in combat. “Perhaps. But that didn’t work so well for you, did it? Everyone knows about the SkyWing egg — all the SkyWing eggs, in fact.”

  Clay’s ears pricked. What did that mean?

  Burn’s tail thumped the floor hard enough to shake the ground below Clay’s feet. “On the contrary, that worked perfectly. They don’t have a SkyWing, do they? Only four dragonets — the prophecy is already incomplete.”

  Clay and Tsunami exchanged glances. She didn’t tell Burn that Glory is one of us. She wants to keep her new “work of art” for herself.

  “And yet our ignorant subjects are always yowling about the dragonets who are going to save the world,” Scarlet said. “They believe in it, no matter what they’ve heard about broken eggs. If we kill the dragonets now, out of sight, it does us no good. Even if we hang their bodies from the palace walls, no one will believe it’s them.”

  Burn bared her teeth in a snarl. “The world doesn’t need a prophecy. It needs me as queen of the SandWings.”

  “But listen,” Scarlet said smoothly. “If we put the dragonets in the arena, everyone can watch them die. They’ll see how weak they really are. They’ll lose all their faith in the dragonets, and more important, in the prophecy. It’ll all be over. Much more powerful than just making them disappear.” The SkyWing queen cast a sly look at her guest. “Don’t you agree?”

  “And what if they win?” Burn demanded.

  “They won’t,” Scarlet said. “But of course killing them ourselves is a solid backup plan.”

  “Excuse me,” Tsunami interrupted. “You know we’re right over here, right? Don’t you want to hatch your evil plans somewhere more secretive?”

  Clay thought the combined force of the queens’ glares would knock her over, but Tsunami just glared back.

  Scarlet opened a pouch slung under her wing and scattered several round black rocks across the mouth of Peril’s cave, on the tunnel side of the pool of water. She opened her mouth and breathed on them, and the rocks all burst into flames. In moments, the dragonets were trapped by a wall of fire.

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