The dragonet prophecy, p.17
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.17

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “What are we talking about?” Clay asked.

  “You, you great lummox,” Tsunami said, poking him with one talon. “And your no-good, evil girlfriend.”

  “I — who?” Clay said.

  “Peril,” Starflight explained. “The one who betrayed us to Queen Scarlet instead of helping us escape.”

  Clay was finally catching up. “You think she did that?” he said. “Why would she do that?”

  “Because she wants to keep you here, obviously,” Tsunami growled. “This is what happens when you’re too nice to psychotic killer dragons.”

  “I’m still confused,” Clay said. “How do red eggs come into it?”

  “Don’t you remember the prophecy?” Starflight asked.

  Clay winced. It was the one thing the big dragons had tried to drill into their heads over and over again. But it never seemed to stick in his.

  “For wings of earth, search through the mud,” Starflight quoted, “for an egg the color of dragon blood.” He stopped and looked expectantly at Clay. There was a pause.

  “What, me?” Clay said.

  “Tell us about the legend,” Tsunami said impatiently to Starflight.

  “It was something about how MudWings hatched from dragon-blood eggs can walk through fire,” Starflight said.

  “Oh, that’s all?” Tsunami said, her voice laced with sarcasm. “Well, that doesn’t sound at all useful. Certainly not worth mentioning.”

  “Hey, if I had my scrolls with me, I’d have all the information we could possibly want,” Starflight pointed out.

  “Wait, that can’t be right,” Clay said. “Kestrel burned me plenty of times in combat training.”

  “But you have no scars,” Tsunami said. “She tried to set you on fire way more than the rest of us, and you always healed in, like, a day.”

  “It still hurt, though,” Clay said. He remembered that really clearly.

  “The mud,” Starflight jumped in. “Dragons draw strength from their natural habitats. SeaWings are most powerful in the ocean. I bet you had to encounter mud before your full immunity from fire could develop.” He paused, thinking, and his expression turned hopeful. “Maybe my powers will be activated by moonlight or something.”

  “If that’s true, the Talons of Peace were especially stupid to keep you underground,” Tsunami said.

  “We’ve been on those columns at night for the last couple of days,” Clay said. “Do you feel any different?”

  Starflight glanced at the stars glittering outside the window. “No,” he admitted after a moment. “But maybe I just don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like.”

  They sat for a moment quietly.

  “Do you really think Peril betrayed us?” Clay asked.

  “She definitely did,” Tsunami answered. “She doesn’t want to lose you.”

  “Oh,” Clay said. “That’s so sad. I guess she doesn’t have any other friends.”

  “Clay!” Tsunami said, exasperated. “Don’t feel sorry for her. She just betrayed us. And by the way, she clearly likes you as more than a friend.” Clay blinked in surprise, and she nudged his wing with hers. “Hey, I get it. You’re lovable or whatever. But you can’t forgive her for this. She’ll only get more possessive if she thinks she can get away with it.”

  “You should stay away from her,” Starflight agreed, shaking his head. “She can’t be trusted.”

  “I guess she’s not going to rescue Sunny either,” Clay said sadly.

  “No,” Tsunami agreed. “We’ll have to do that ourselves.”

  “Tomorrow,” Starflight added. They all looked out at the guards stationed in the tunnel. Even if Clay moved the fire rocks, the three of them were no match for that many fierce, bad-tempered warrior dragons. They were trapped for the rest of the night.

  “We’ll figure out something,” Tsunami said.

  Clay was exhausted. He hadn’t slept much, and then only badly, since his fight with Fjord. He curled up on the floor, and the other two flopped over him — the way they all used to sleep, in a pile of dragonets, before Kestrel insisted on the sleeping caves and rocky ledges for beds.

  The warmth and weight of the other two was just what Clay needed. Despite his fears about the morning, his guilt over trusting Peril, and his sadness at her betrayal, he was asleep within moments. And he didn’t have a single nightmare.

  The roaring of dragons woke them the next morning. The three dragonets barely had time to scramble to their feet before guards began pouring into their cave. The black rocks had burned down to embers, which the SkyWing soldiers swept into the pool easily with their tails. Several of them grabbed Tsunami and pushed her toward the arena; the rest herded Clay and Starflight up the tunnel.

  “Wait!” Clay cried. “Where is she going? Why can’t we go with her?”

  “Listen to him. Oh, please hurry up and kill me,” mocked one of the SkyWing guards.

  “Don’t worry, it’ll be your turn soon enough,” said another, and they all cackled unpleasantly.

  Clay and Starflight were shoved up a flight of long, wide, black stairs and emerged blinking into bright sunlight.

  They were standing on the queen’s balcony, overlooking the arena. Queen Scarlet was already there, lounging on her throne. She smirked at them.

  “I thought you’d appreciate the best view in the house for this.” She nodded at the arena, where Tsunami was snapping and clawing at the guards around her.

  Fat chains were wound around their necks, and Clay and Starflight were bolted to rings on the balcony floor. Burn stood next to Scarlet, ignoring the throne provided for her. She glowered at all the dragons equally. Clay got the feeling she preferred actual fighting over watching other dragons fight.

  He jerked back against his chain as Glory was rolled forward into the sunlight. She was still lying in relaxed loops around the tree, with waves of emerald green and peacock blue drifting through her scales. Her eyes were closed, but as she rolled past, Clay was sure they opened a tiny bit, just enough to see her friends chained nearby. At least, he hoped that’s what he saw.

  Burn’s black eyes were fixed on Glory as well.

  “Oh, that’s my new toy,” Queen Scarlet said airily. “Pretty, isn’t she? I bet I’m the only queen with my very own RainWing.”

  “Waste of food,” Burn muttered, but her expression was envious.

  “She doesn’t eat much,” Scarlet said. “She’s more like an exotic plant than a dragon. Water, lots of sunshine, a little fruit, and a monkey here or there. Worth it until I get bored of her anyway.”

  “Hmmm,” said Burn.

  The seats were filled with hundreds of dragons — all the dragons in the Sky Kingdom, it seemed to Clay. They roared and stamped their feet, demanding bloody entertainment.

  Vermilion fluttered down into the center of the arena. “Fellow dragons,” he called. “Loyal SkyWings and visiting MudWings and honored SandWing guests. We have a full slate of thrilling games today, so let’s begin!” He turned to gesture to Tsunami just as she broke away from her guards and charged at him. With a yelp of terror, Vermilion shot into the sky, barely escaping her talons.

  The dragons in the audience roared with laughter. Tsunami hissed at Vermilion as he looped in circles above her.

  “Looks like someone’s mistaken me for her opponent today,” Vermilion announced with a nervous laugh. “Sorry to disappoint you, SeaWing, but there’s a much more dramatic fellow we’d like you to meet.” He gestured to the sky. Several guards were wrestling with a pea-green SeaWing on one of the spires.

  “Down on the sands, we have one of the so-called dragonets of destiny,” Vermilion bellowed, staying up in the air. “Are they really so great and powerful? This is how we find out. I give you … Tsunami of the SeaWings!”

  The sound of beating wing
s and hissing fire-breath filled the arena. It was louder than Clay had expected, as if the watching dragons were really rooting for her. He could pick out some of the voices in the crowd.

  “It’s really them! The dragonets of destiny!”

  “Well, you saw what the MudWing did to Fjord! What was that?”

  “Did you hear the mountain singing last night?”

  “Such a fabulous party . . .”

  “. . . must have been an omen.”

  “. . . ghosts in the peaks … the dragonets are here . . .”

  “. . . wearing the same ruby medallion! It was too embarrassing.”

  “. . . hope she wins . . .”

  Clay glanced at Queen Scarlet, who had smoke billowing in rings around her horns. She flicked her tail at Vermilion as if to say, Get on with it.

  “AHEM,” said Vermilion. “Some of you may remember a dragon a few months back who refused to fight.”

  “BOOOOOOOOO!” the crowd chanted obediently.

  “Indeed,” said Vermilion. “Tried to start a regular prisoner revolution, didn’t he? Tried to get all the dragons to stop fighting. Well, clearly he had to be taught a lesson, or we’d all be lying in our caves right now, bored out of our skulls. Am I right?”

  “WOO HOOOO!” the crowd agreed.

  “So what’s the best way to punish a SeaWing?” Vermilion swooped over the crowd, trying to look as if he was perfectly comfortable in the air instead of on the sands where he usually did his announcing.

  “Chop off his head!”

  “Stuff grass in his gills!”

  “Drown him!”

  Vermilion sighed. “All good suggestions,” he said. “But no. The best way to punish a SeaWing — is to take away their water. All their water. For months.”

  Tsunami looked up at the queen’s balcony and met Clay’s eyes. Her scales were pale with horror.

  The writhing SeaWing landed hard on the sands, dropped by the guards. He was twice as big as Tsunami, with talons as sharp and curved as fishhooks. Dried blood flecked his mouth as if he’d been trying to drink from his own veins. His scales were dull and crusted, and his dark green eyes were bloodshot and rolling wildly in his emaciated skull.

  He looked completely insane.

  “Dehydrated, mentally unstable, and ready to fight at last. It’s Gill of the Seawings! Claws up, tails ready! Fight!”

  Gill didn’t wait for Vermilion’s order. He tore across the sand toward Tsunami as soon as he’d recovered his balance. His mouth was open as if he thought he was roaring, but no sound came out. His tongue, purple and swollen, lolled to the side.

  Tsunami leaped over his head and ducked into a roll as she landed, carrying her halfway across the arena. She spun to face him as Gill turned and charged her again.

  “He’s fast,” Starflight whispered to Clay. “He’s desperate.”

  “Tsunami’s fast, too,” Clay said. But he wondered if she was feeling everything he’d felt, down on the sands. Facing her first battle to the death, was she hesitant to kill another dragon? Because Gill wouldn’t hesitate at all. He couldn’t be distracted like Fjord. He’d been driven mad with thirst, and he’d tear Tsunami apart without knowing what he was doing.

  The big green dragon reared up with his wings spread and tried to slam himself down on Tsunami’s back. She slashed at his underbelly with her claws. Bright red blood spurted over her blue scales. Gill’s talons slipped off her back, and he crashed face-first into the sand as she shot out of the way.

  He was up immediately, lunging after her. His claws seized her tail and he yanked hard, lifting her off her feet. She wriggled in midair and sank her teeth into the webbed skin between his talons.

  Gill did his soundless roar again. There was something unearthly about watching dragons fight in silence. It made Clay feel like his scales were crawling across his back.

  Gill dropped Tsunami and she whirled quickly, smashing her tail into his legs. The big SeaWing went over like a toppling boulder. The thud of his body landing shook the whole stadium.

  Tsunami pounced on his head, pinning his wings with her back talons. She seized his horns in her front claws and shoved his face into the sand. His tail thrashed, bucking her up and down, but Tsunami’s weight was too much for him to throw off.

  “I’ve won,” Tsunami shouted. “You can all see that. We can end this now, without killing anyone. I ask you all to let me let him live!”

  There was a stunned silence across the arena. Clay glanced at Queen Scarlet, wondering if she would stand up to argue with Tsunami. But her expression was smug, as if she knew exactly what would happen next.

  “KILL HIM!” several SkyWings shouted at once. “Snap his neck! Pull out his teeth! Oooo, gouge his eyes! Something gory! Death! Death! Death! Death!” Suddenly all the dragons were shouting at her in unison.

  Tsunami lowered her head, breathing hard. She seemed to be studying Gill, perhaps wondering if there was any way to bring him back from the madness.

  “She doesn’t have a choice,” Starflight said. “It’s her life or his. If she lets him go, he’ll kill her right away. She has to know that.”

  Yes, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier, Clay thought.

  “Perhaps our ‘dragonet of destiny’ doesn’t have the stomach for battle,” Queen Scarlet called snidely. “Maybe war is too scary for her. Perhaps she’d like to go back into hiding instead?”

  Tsunami lifted her chin and stared straight into Queen Scarlet’s eyes. With a wrench of her talons, she snapped Gill’s neck in one clean break. The expression on her face said, all too clearly, I’m imagining this is you.

  “Disappointing,” Queen Scarlet said to Burn, as the crowd of dragons erupted in cheers.

  “Catastrophic,” Burn growled. “Look, the idiots love her now.”

  Dragons were leaning over the top of the arena walls to throw small jewels at Tsunami. A couple of little emeralds bounced off her scales as she dropped Gill’s head and stepped back from his limp body.

  Tsunami gave the cheering dragons a disgusted look, but that didn’t stop them.

  “Don’t worry, I have a plan,” said Queen Scarlet. She rubbed her front talons together. “But now it’s time for the NightWing! My hatching-day present to me!”

  Starflight’s terrified eyes locked with Clay’s. All his know-it-all superiority vanished in a heartbeat.

  “Wait!” Clay cried as the guards started to unchain Starflight. “Let me fight for him instead!”

  “These dragonets,” Scarlet said, waving a claw at Burn. “Constantly pushing and shoving to save each other. It’s just the weirdest thing.” She signaled to the guards with one talon, and they hauled Starflight off to the tunnel. Clay leaned his full weight against his chains, trying to break free, but they held fast.

  “You’re not spoiling this for me, MudWing,” Scarlet said. “I’ve been dying to see the NightWing fight. He’s so very sparkly and good-looking. I think after he’s dead I’ll cut off his wings and hang them on my throne room walls. Wouldn’t that be magnificent and thrilling? All those silver scales sparkling like diamonds against obsidian. I love it.”

  Burn growled low in her throat. “This is a frivolous palace,” she muttered.

  “Careful how you speak of your allies,” Scarlet said. “Remember you need us.”

  Burn shifted her wings and kept her mouth shut.

  No one had chained up Tsunami after her fight. She was still standing in the arena, her back turned to the SeaWing corpse, which was already beginning to smell of dead fish.

  Then Starflight was shoved out of the tunnel, and Clay realized what Scarlet’s plan was. Hope fluttered inside him. Tsunami would never kill Starflight. Not in a million years. Not even to stop one of his endless lectures about the science of fire-breathing.

“The rarest of all dragons,” Vermilion called from the safety of a ledge opposite the queen’s balcony. “A real live NightWing. Is he the dragonet of the prophecy? Let’s see what happens when two of them have to fight each other. Tsunami of the SeaWings and Starflight of the NightWings! Claws up, teeth ready! Fight!”

  Tsunami and Starflight stood looking at each other. Tsunami’s sides were heaving, and she was covered in Gill’s blood. She looked a bit scarier than usual, and Starflight clawed the sand nervously, as if he wasn’t entirely sure she wouldn’t snap and kill him.

  Slowly Tsunami walked over to Starflight. He opened his wings, and she leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder.

  “BOOO … ooo?” called a solitary voice from the crowd, dropping off as no one joined in.

  “Awwwww,” went a few dragons in the upper seats, far enough from the queen that they wouldn’t be recognized.

  “This is getting worse and worse,” Burn hissed through gritted teeth.

  “Aren’t you going to fight?” Queen Scarlet called. Tsunami and Starflight didn’t even look up. “That’s very annoying,” the queen added. “Go on, you’ve been stuck with each other for years. You must be ready to kill her, NightWing. Doesn’t she drive you mad?”

  Clay looked over at Glory, wishing she’d smile at him. She’d joked often enough about ways to shut up both Tsunami and Starflight. But her eyes stayed closed.

  “No?” Scarlet leaned forward. “Oh, fine, be the worst gladiators ever. Vermilion! Release the scavengers!”

  Vermilion flapped his wings, and a huge cage came rolling out of the tunnel. The queen’s son flew to the top of it and bit down to sever the cord that held the door. The door fell open, and four scavengers burst onto the sand, waving claws and squeaking ferociously.

  “Scavengers? To kill the dragonets of the prophecy? Are you mad?” Burn snarled.

  “Well, it only took one to get your mother,” Scarlet observed. Burn’s head whipped around, her venomous tail arching up toward the SkyWing queen.

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