The dragonet prophecy, p.16
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.16

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Sleep well, so you’ll be thrilling in the arena,” Queen Scarlet said. “I thought I’d get to play with you for longer, but I guess you all have to be dead by sunset tomorrow.” She sighed. “Nobody lets me have any fun.”

  Clay listened to the heavy thump of the queens’ talons fading away up the tunnel. He turned to look at his friends just as Tsunami cannoned into him.

  “Ow!” he yelped, but he didn’t fight her off as she twined her tail with his and wrapped her wings around him.

  “I’m so glad you’re alive,” she said. “You incredibly huge idiot.”

  “So am I,” Clay said. “But I’m more glad you two are alive.” He reached out a wing and drew Starflight into their hug. The NightWing rested his head for a moment on Clay’s shoulder, and Clay felt worried all over again about what would happen to Starflight in the arena.

  “We need to figure out how to get out of here,” he said.

  “First we’re cleaning you up,” Tsunami said, stepping back and shooing Starflight out of the way. “Into the water. Go!”

  “That’s not important,” Clay said. “I feel —”

  Tsunami pushed him into the pool.

  Clay surfaced, coughing and sputtering. The pool was almost as deep as he was tall. He could stand on the bottom and hold his head above the surface if he kept his neck extended. The water was cold, but with the black-rock fire so close, it was slowly heating up.

  “See?” Tsunami said. “Much better.” She leaned over the edge and rubbed the scales on his back, cleaning off the dirt and blood. Clay decided it wasn’t worth arguing with her.

  “That was pretty smart,” Starflight said to Tsunami. “With the song. I have no idea how you managed to pull a melody out of your ear after being completely tone-deaf your whole life.”

  She blinked at him. “I didn’t do that. I thought you did!”

  “It was me,” Clay admitted. He drew out the wire and slid it across the floor. Starflight picked it up and peered at it.

  “How did you break that?” Tsunami said. Clay really liked the tone of awe in her voice. He wished he could say he’d done something clever.

  “I had help,” he admitted. “That dragon who was just here — Peril. Her touch can burn through it. She did that by accident.”

  Starflight reached up and fingered the bands on his wings, looking thoughtful.

  “That dragon is psychotic,” Tsunami said. “Didn’t you see her decimate that SandWing? And she’s Kestrel’s daughter, which kind of makes sense.”

  “Yeah,” Starflight said. “No wonder Kestrel always hated us. I bet the Talons of Peace thought she’d want to be on dragonet-minding duty after what she’d lost. But we just reminded her of her dead children every day.”

  Clay shivered. He hadn’t thought of it like that. “Peril’s not completely crazy,” he said. “She’s kind of nice when she’s not killing someone. She brought me mud for my back. And she said she found Sunny.”

  Starflight’s head shot up. “Where?”

  “Can she get to her?” Tsunami demanded. “Can she set her free?”

  “I don’t know if Peril will help us,” Clay said, rolling his shoulders in the water. “I haven’t talked to her since the trial. I’m afraid she’s mad at me.”

  “I’m not mad at you.” Peril stuck her head through the wall of fire and looked down at Clay in the pool.

  Tsunami jumped back with a hiss of alarm. Starflight crouched and froze, watching Peril with large eyes.

  “Oh, good,” Clay said to Peril. He wondered how much of their conversation she had overheard. Would she help them even if she’d heard Tsunami calling her names? She certainly wasn’t giving Tsunami the friendliest look. “Where have you been?”

  “I didn’t want to put you in danger,” Peril blurted. She flapped her wings, and the fire whooshed higher around her.

  “Come inside,” Clay said. “It’s weird talking to someone on fire.”

  He ducked his head underwater, and Peril hopped over the pool into the cave. Tsunami and Starflight both backed up to the windows, staying as far away from Peril as they could.

  Clay climbed out of the pool and spread his wings so Peril’s heat could dry them off. She coiled her tail in close to her and dipped her head at him, ignoring the other two.

  “I was afraid the queen would hurt you like she hurt Osprey,” Peril said miserably. “I shouldn’t even be talking to you. If she finds out I like you, she’ll do something awful to you just to punish me.”

  Tsunami gave Clay a sharp look he didn’t understand.

  “Can you help us escape?” he asked Peril hopefully.

  “I wish,” she said. “That would make her madder than anything. But I can’t get you through that fire.” She flicked her tail at the wall of flames.

  “Could we use the water to put it out?” Starflight asked. He flinched as Peril turned to look at him.

  “No — those rocks have to burn down to embers. They can’t be put out any other way.”

  “What about Sunny?” Clay asked. “Is there anything you can do to free her? We have to rescue her before Burn takes her away.”

  Peril’s blue-flame eyes narrowed. “You talk about this Sunny a lot. Is she really that important?”

  “Yes!” all three dragonets answered at once. Peril’s tail twitched. Clay had no idea why she looked so displeased.

  “Peril,” Tsunami interjected. “Listen. Sunny is like a little sister to us. To all of us.”

  Starflight looked down at his talons.

  “Think about your brother,” Tsunami went on. “Wouldn’t you have saved him if you could?”

  Peril’s expression shifted, and she nodded. “A sister. Yes. I understand. All right, I’ll help.”

  “Where is she?” Starflight asked. “Is she all right?”

  “She’s in a kind of birdcage,” Peril said, “hung over the feasting hall. Everyone will be celebrating out there all night tonight, but tomorrow, while they’re watching the arena, I can sneak in and get her.”

  “Oh, thank you!” Clay nearly twined his tail around hers, but he remembered at the last second not to touch her.

  “What about Clay and Starflight?” Tsunami asked. “I can survive the arena, but they can’t.”

  “Um, I can survive the arena, too,” Clay said. “Hello, I already have.”

  “And how did you do that, exactly?” Tsunami asked. “I happen to know you don’t have secret venom in your claws.”

  “I know what to do!” Starflight cried, jumping to his feet.

  “In the arena?” Tsunami said skeptically.

  “No, right now,” he said. “I know how we can get out of here.”

  Starflight pointed to the flames rising from the black rocks. “Peril, the fire doesn’t hurt you, right?”

  She shrugged. “It tickles a little, that’s all.”

  “And the fire is coming from the rocks. What if you picked up the rocks and moved them? You could put the fire somewhere else and open the doorway for us, couldn’t you?”

  Clay’s heart was beating fast. Peril tilted her head at Starflight. “He is smart,” she said. “Just like you said. I guess I could do that.” She sounded like she wasn’t entirely convinced. “If you’re really sure you want to escape tonight.”

  “Of course we are,” Tsunami said, springing to her feet. “Let’s get out of here.”

  “But Sunny —” Starflight said.

  “We hide somewhere and wait until Peril can free her tomorrow,” Tsunami said.

  “And Glory,” Clay said. “We have to save Glory, too.”

  “Glory?” Peril’s brow creased in a frown.

  “The RainWing. Queen Scarlet’s new artwork,” Clay said.

  “Oh,” Peril said. “Her. She’s very b
eautiful.” She narrowed her eyes at Clay, which confused him.

  “Let’s run away now and worry about that later,” Tsunami said. “Is there somewhere we can hide?”

  Peril snapped her wings open. “Below the waterfall. There’s a cave only I know about.” She turned, nearly smacking Clay with her tail, and hopped over the pool into the fire. Clay watched in amazement as she wrapped her claws around two of the black rocks and picked them up. She stepped into the tunnel, and the fire from the rocks went with her, blazing around her talons.

  Carefully she piled the fire on the rock floor outside until there was a gap big enough for the dragonets to jump through. Tsunami went first, and then Clay, and then Starflight. When they were all out in the tunnel, Peril rebuilt the wall of fire across the cave entrance.

  “There,” she said with satisfaction. “Now she’ll have no idea how you got out.”

  “Can you get these off our wings?” Starflight whispered, pointing to the bindings. Peril gave him a hard look.

  “Maybe,” she said. “But maybe I’ll wait until I know you won’t leave without saying good-bye.”

  “We wouldn’t leave without our friends,” Clay promised. She scowled.

  “Which way to the waterfall?” Tsunami asked.

  Peril nodded up the tunnel and slithered off, leading the way.

  “Stop making her mad,” Tsunami hissed in Clay’s ear as they followed.

  “Me?” he said, genuinely surprised. “What did I do?”

  “Well, you’re a handsome idiot,” she said affectionately. “And I’ll tell you later.”

  Which didn’t clear things up at all.

  Shortly before they reached the central hall of balconies, the tunnel turned left and began to rise. Peril signaled for them all to move quietly, and they crept toward the sound of dragons shouting, singing, and smashing things.

  Peril glanced over her shoulder at Clay, who was concentrating on moving his talons carefully over the rocky, gold-laced floor. “Hey,” she whispered. “Once you’re free … what are you going to do?”

  “We’ll go find our parents,” Clay whispered back. “I’ve never been to the MudWing kingdom. I can’t wait.”

  “Really?” Peril said. “You’ll go straight there? Just the five of you?”

  “Absolutely. As soon as poss —” Clay started, and then Tsunami trod heavily on his tail. He squelched a yelp of pain and made a face at her. When he looked up again, Peril had hurried ahead.

  Clay guessed they had climbed two levels, circling behind the balconies, when they reached an open doorway as tall as five dragons and just as wide. They hid around a corner of the tunnel and peeked out.

  The doorway led out onto a flat half-circle plateau between the cliffs, packed with SkyWings and SandWings and lit by floating globes full of fire. Most of the SkyWings were wearing gold or copper or precious jewels that sparkled in the firelight. The SandWing desert dragons looked rough and common next to them, and many of them stood awkwardly as if they would rather be charging into battle than making polite conversation at a party.

  Statues of Queen Scarlet in different regal poses were scattered about the floor, some carved from marble, some of gold, others of smooth black rock with rubies for eyes. Tables around the outside were piled high with food, and several kinds of prey were also running frantically between the dragons’ claws. A low rock barrier kept the prey from escaping into the tunnel, and all around the plateau were steep cliffs going either up or down, so they were trapped.

  Clay saw a SkyWing pause mid-conversation, smash her talons down on a mountain goat, pop it in her mouth, and continue chatting with the SandWing opposite her. He also spotted a couple of scavengers among the prey. Instead of running around like terrified chickens, one was trying to climb the cliff; the other was crawling under one of the tables to hide. It made him wonder if scavengers were smarter than they looked.

  Now that he could see the feast was out in the open air, he realized how the dragons out here had heard the prisoners singing. He’d been wondering how the sound had carried down the long tunnels, but from here the arena was only a short dragon hop across a couple of cliffs.

  Queen Scarlet lay on a tall golden throne, looking down at the other dragons. Another, shorter throne was set up next to her for Burn, although Burn’s enormous height brought their heads to almost the same level. Burn kept shifting and scowling as if the fancy curved seat was uncomfortable.

  Starflight grabbed Clay’s shoulder and pointed at a large birdcage hanging over the center of the space. It was held aloft by wires like the ones on the prisoners’ legs, strung between tall poles on either side of the plateau. Occasionally a dragon or two would fly up and circle the cage, peering in, and then fly back down to the floor.

  Crouched inside the cage with her wings over her head was Sunny. Her golden scales glowed dully in the firelight, as if she were just another piece of treasure.

  “Stop,” Tsunami whispered as Clay started forward. “I know. I want to go get her, too.”

  “But if we do it right now, it’s suicide,” Starflight agreed. “Better to let them think we’d leave without her. If they know we care about her, they’ll use it against us.” His tail lashed in frustration.

  “But she’s all alone,” Clay whispered. If only she knew they were there, not too far away. He stretched a little farther out, looking for Glory, but he couldn’t see her. Perhaps Scarlet was hiding her from Burn.

  “You guys cross first,” Peril said. “Crouch low and run, and hopefully they won’t spot us.” She sent Tsunami darting across first, and the others followed one at a time. Clay found himself wishing he had darker scales that could melt into the shadows like Starflight’s. They huddled around the next bend, waiting for Peril.

  “Sorry,” she said when she caught up a few moments later. “I had to wait for the queen to look away.”

  From here the tunnel branched in several directions. Peril took the one leading down under the cliff where the feast was. The torches were spaced farther apart as they went along, so the tunnel grew darker and darker. Soon Clay could hear roaring up ahead, and this time he knew for sure it was a waterfall.

  They emerged on a narrow ridge halfway up a tall, craggy cliff. By the light of the moons, they could see straight down to a glittering, winding river far below. The waterfall pounded ahead of them, loud and fierce, and the wind carried bursts of cold spray into their faces.

  Starflight pressed himself back against the cliff. “Are you sure you don’t want to unbind our wings now?” he said, closing his eyes.

  “You’ll be fine,” Peril said. “It’s easy to climb down from here. I’ve done it when my wings are tired. See? The cave’s right there.”

  Clay peeked over the edge and saw a small gap in the cliff far below, like a tiny gash in the wall behind the waterfall. It was definitely a journey he’d prefer to do with functioning wings. But if they had to keep Peril happy . . .

  “I see some claw holds,” he said. “And we can rest on that boulder halfway —” He stopped. Over the roaring of the waterfall, he could hear wingbeats. Someone was coming.

  He spun around. “Hide,” he said, frantically pushing Peril toward the tunnel. “If they find you helping us, the queens will kill you, champion or not.”

  She stopped in the mouth of the tunnel, staring at him. Clay turned and saw Tsunami and Starflight wearing matching shocked expressions.

  “How did you do that?” Peril whispered.

  “Do —” Clay started, and then he felt the heat in his talons. He had touched Peril’s scales without even thinking. He looked down, expecting to see dark scorch marks and claws crumbling to ash. But his talons were only glowing a warm red, and even as he looked at them, the redness and the heat faded away until his talons felt entirely normal again.

  “Stop gawping,” Tsunam
i ordered, shoving him at the tunnel. “Everybody run.”

  “I don’t think so,” said Queen Scarlet’s chilly voice behind them. Clay turned slowly and saw the SkyWing queen descending from the cliff above, her bejeweled wings spread wide.

  “Thank you, Peril,” the queen said nastily. “You may be excused.”

  Clay didn’t understand. Thank you for what? Peril gave him an agonized look and fled up the tunnel.

  Queen Scarlet smiled at the dragonets as SkyWing soldiers began to rain from the sky. “Going somewhere?”

  The queen was not pleased to find her wall of fire still in place when the dragonets were hauled back to their cell. She sighed disapprovingly.

  “So you’ve figured out what MudWings hatched from blood-red eggs can do,” she said. “I suppose it was only a matter of time.”

  Clay glanced at the others in confusion as the guards used long shovels to scrape the rocks aside. What did she think he’d done? Tsunami and Starflight looked grim, as if they understood a lot more than he did.

  “Find the ten most sober guards,” Scarlet instructed Vermilion. “Post them out here. These dragonets are done ruining my party.” She glared at the three of them as they were pushed into the cave once more and the fire wall was scraped back into place. “It’s really very selfish of you,” she snapped. “My hatching day only comes once a year. I’ve been planning this for months. So stop being awful, or I will take Burn’s advice and kill you right now.”

  They waited until she was gone and the spiny backs of ten very grouchy SkyWing guards filled the passageway outside. Then Tsunami pulled Clay and Starflight to the far corner, where the wind whistling through the narrow windows would cover their conversation.

  “I don’t remember anything about that in the scrolls,” she whispered to Starflight.

  “There was one reference to a legend from before the Scorching,” Starflight whispered back. “But I didn’t think it meant anything. The guardians never said there was anything special about a red egg. I don’t think they’re even all that rare.”

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