The dragonet prophecy, p.18
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.18

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Oh, calm down,” Scarlet said with a snort. “It’ll be fun. I’ve got more things waiting in the wings to kill them if this doesn’t work. This is the only NightWing I’ll probably ever get in my arena, and I want to see him fight everything.”

  Clay leaned forward, worried. They’d never practiced fighting or hunting scavengers. Scavengers only attacked dragons with treasure, and the dragonets didn’t have anything. He wondered if Starflight had read about their fighting techniques in any of his scrolls.

  Then again, scavengers were still prey, only a little fiercer and pointier. The guardians would often release animals in the caves for the dragonets to chase, so they could learn hunting skills. Were scavengers really any different from lizards or goats or ostriches?

  Tsunami pushed Starflight back against the wall and spread her wings in front of him, baring her teeth at the scavengers. Three of them ran right at her; the fourth took one look and bolted for the tunnel entrance.

  Well, it wasn’t normal for prey to run at a dragon. So perhaps scavengers were a little different after all.

  Tsunami cuffed aside the first scavenger with a swipe that sent it flying into the seats. All the closest dragons lunged for it, clawing and shouting and climbing over each other to catch it. The scavenger landed, screaming, in one SkyWing’s outstretched talons, and the dragon promptly ate him.

  The other two scavengers skidded to a stop and backpedaled out of Tsunami’s reach. She flicked her tongue at them.

  Meanwhile, the scavenger who had tried to run came hurtling back out of the tunnel, herded by a trio of large SkyWing guards holding long spears. He pelted across the sand, letting out one long shriek of fear, until he crashed into the opposite wall and fell over. He didn’t get up again.

  “This is going well,” Burn muttered. “The NightWing isn’t even doing anything.”

  “The other two scavengers are female,” Scarlet pointed out. “They sometimes last a bit longer.”

  One of the scavengers pointed, and they split up, circling Tsunami from different directions. They approached slowly, each holding out a silvery claw. Tsunami eyed them until she couldn’t watch them both at once. Then she turned and lunged at the one on her left.

  That one darted under her talons and stabbed at her underbelly. Tsunami yelped and reached to grab the scavenger, but it had already scurried away.

  At the same time, the other scavenger shot behind Tsunami’s back and threw herself at Starflight. The NightWing tried to bat her away like Tsunami had done, but she swerved around his claws. Suddenly she was climbing up his front leg and before he could shake her off, she scrabbled onto his back.

  Clay tensed. He’d never seen a move like that. Definitely not something a cow would try.

  Starflight tried to twist his head over his shoulder to bite at the scavenger, but she moved fast, clinging to his scales like a salamander going up a rock. He shook his head furiously and reached up to claw her off. She wriggled aside, and he accidentally clawed his own neck. A thin trail of blood trickled from his scales.

  “Not very impressive,” Queen Scarlet sniffed. “I suppose they can’t read scavenger minds. Not enough going on in there.”

  Clay clenched his talons. That scavenger was getting close to Starflight’s snout. If she stabbed that claw into one of his eyes . . .

  “Tsunami!” he yelled.

  Tsunami was halfway across the arena, chasing the scavenger who’d attacked her. Tsunami was faster, but the scavenger kept changing directions and running underneath her. At Clay’s call, Tsunami whipped around and saw Starflight’s danger.

  She raced toward him, but before she got there, Starflight suddenly gritted his teeth and slammed his head to the ground. The scavenger was flung forward over his horns, landing hard and rolling into the wall. Almost instantly she was up and staggering away from his teeth, which snapped on empty air.

  Starflight didn’t chase her. He stood rubbing his head, watching the scavenger stumble on the churned-up sand. When Tsunami started past him, he reached out and stopped her. Tsunami’s own scavenger ran by and helped Starflight’s scavenger lean against the wall. The two scavengers glared around at the stadium full of dragons. Loud angry squeaking noises came out of both of them.

  “You’re right,” Scarlet said with a sigh to Burn. “This isn’t nearly as thrilling as I thought it would be. Let’s go straight to the IceWings!” she shouted across to Vermilion.

  He signaled, and guards took off from all over the stadium. Clay watched in dread as they scattered to the IceWing prisoners. He counted at least eight IceWings up there. He vaguely remembered something from one of Starflight’s lectures about how IceWings hated NightWings from some long-ago war.

  “Finally a smart idea,” Burn hissed.

  “Let me fight, too!” Clay pleaded. “Put me in there with them!” He knew three dragonets had no chance against eight IceWings, but he would rather be down there with his friends than stuck on the balcony, unable to help.

  Suddenly a cloud seemed to pass over the sun. The fluttering of wings made all the dragons look up as a wave of darkness flew overhead. One piece of the darkness separated from the rest and spiraled down into the arena, ducking under the web of wires.

  As he descended magnificently onto the sand, wings outstretched, Clay recognized him.

  Morrowseer had arrived at last.

  Clay was torn between relief and anger. What had taken the NightWing so long?

  A hush fell over the arena. The SkyWing guards hovered up in the sky, halfway through unchaining the IceWings. All the dragons stared at Morrowseer, whose vast black form seemed to fill the whole arena. His darkness sucked up all the light around him.

  He pointed to Starflight and addressed Queen Scarlet. “This dragonet is ours.”

  Just him? Clay thought. What about the rest of us? He was afraid if he spoke up, the queen would kill him before Morrowseer had a chance to save them. But maybe he could get into Morrowseer’s thoughts. . . .

  “Ours who?” Queen Scarlet said. “We found him with some Talons of Peace revolutionaries. Are you telling me the NightWings have finally chosen sides?”

  Burn chimed in with a snarl. “Are you allying yourselves with an underground peace movement instead of a real queen?”

  Morrowseer glanced up at the sky, where a flight of black dragons was circling. “No,” he said in his deep rumbling voice. “I come only to claim this dragonet as ours. We will take him and go.”

  “Oh, will you?” said Queen Scarlet. “On whose authority? Would your mysterious queen like to appear and discuss the matter with me?”

  Morrowseer’s eyes glittered dangerously. “Do not anger the NightWings, sky dragon. Give us our dragonet.”

  And the rest of us! Clay thought as loud as he could. Over here! Dragonets of destiny! Four more besides Starflight! All totally key to the prophecy! Maybe Morrowseer had forgotten they were there. But he could read minds — couldn’t he hear Clay shouting for help?

  Queen Scarlet stamped her foot. “No! I want to see him fight IceWings! It’s my hatching day!”

  For a moment, as everybody paused, Clay was afraid that Morrowseer would give up and fly away. Then the black dragon’s tail twitched, just the tiniest bit, and all at once several NightWings came plummeting out of the sky.

  Clay watched in awe. He must have called them with his mind.

  Without a word or a visible signal, the NightWings fanned out across the circle of prisoners. The SkyWing guards dodged out of the way, looking terrified. Each pair of NightWings fell on an IceWing prisoner, talons slashing. Within moments, all the IceWings were dead. Their silvery corpses flopped across their cells. Bluish-red blood dripped slowly down the sides of the rock spires.

  That wasn’t fair, Clay thought. The IceWings were all chained up — they couldn’t fight back. If the Night
Wings are so tough, why not free all the prisoners instead of killing more dragons? He looked down at Morrowseer again and thought he saw the dragon’s scornful gaze pass over him. Oops. I mean, thank you, NightWings! We’re very glad you’re here. ALL FIVE OF US!

  So much smoke was pouring out of Scarlet’s nostrils that it was hard to see her eyes. Beside her, Burn’s tail was lashing. She looked ready to jump down and attack Morrowseer herself.

  The large NightWing smiled coldly. “There,” he said. “We’ve taken care of your IceWing problem. Now we’ll be going.” He beat his wings once, lifting up into the air, and then swooped down on Starflight.

  “Wait!” Starflight cried as Morrowseer’s talons closed around him. “What about my friends?”

  YES! Clay screamed in his head. WHAT ABOUT US?

  Morrowseer didn’t even look down at the dragonets. He soared off into the sky, carrying Starflight away with him. The rest of the NightWings circled once more and then followed him south.

  Clay felt like he’d been pummeled by a SeaWing tail. A rescuer had come down from the clouds … and decided not to rescue them. He met Tsunami’s eyes. Hers were bitter and angry.

  She was not the only one. “Guards!” Queen Scarlet roared. “I will have one thing go right today,” she fumed. “Fetch my champion. And clean up that mess down there.” She swept one wing toward the arena.

  Burn looked too angry to speak. The queens watched in silence as SkyWings hurried onto the sand and started dragging off the bodies of Gill and the scavenger. The two scavengers still alive were shooed back into the cage and rolled away. Guards threw chains over Tsunami, who submitted without fighting for once, perhaps too shocked and angry to muster the energy.

  All around the stadium, a shocked stillness hung over the watching dragons. Clay guessed it had been a long time since they’d seen anyone win a showdown with their queen.

  “As you all know,” Scarlet said suddenly, her voice regal and commanding as if mystery dragons hadn’t just swooped out of the sky to steal her toy, “yesterday my champion, Peril, offered to stand for the accused prisoner, Kestrel, in a Champion’s Shield. She will now fight a dragon of my choosing, and if she wins, Kestrel goes free. If she loses — then I suppose I’ll have to get a new champion.”

  She paused, expecting a reaction from the crowd, but nothing happened. Queen Scarlet frowned. “Oh, right,” she said. “You think Peril can’t lose. Well, it so happens that we have a special guest here today — a dragon whose scales are impervious to fire. Isn’t that … thrilling?”

  Clay barely had time to register this before guards seized him.

  As he was being dragged into the tunnel, he caught a glimpse of Queen Scarlet’s face and realized she knew exactly what she was doing.

  She knew he and Peril were friends. Or had been, before her betrayal anyway.

  The queen was forcing Peril to choose between him and her mother.

  And now Clay had to choose between killing Peril … and death.

  Sand that was sticky with blood clumped between Clay’s talons. The sun beat down, bright and hot in his eyes. He paced around the arena, thinking. Was there any way out of this?

  He couldn’t count on Peril sparing his life, that was for sure. She’d betrayed him once. Surely she would do it again, if it was to save her mother.

  He heard her scales scraping along the tunnel and turned to face her as she entered the arena.

  She stopped, and it was like every emotion in the world hit her face at the same time. “I should have guessed,” she said, furious and low, so only Clay could hear. “The only dragon here who can touch me. No wonder she wanted me to stay away from you.”

  “I guess you should have,” Clay said. Peril flinched.

  “There you go, Peril,” Queen Scarlet said. Behind her, Tsunami was dragged onto the balcony, wrapped in chains and glowing with anger. “That’s the dragon you have to kill before I set your mother free. Have fun!”

  Peril slid toward Clay, and he fled to the opposite wall. She hesitated, then put on a burst of speed and chased after him. He waited until she was a heartbeat away, then lunged forward and body-slammed her to the ground.

  The crowd roared with surprise and delight.

  She lay there gasping as he got up and ran to the other side of the arena again. She’s not used to her opponents being able to hit back, he thought. Fiery heat blazed where his shoulder had touched her, but it faded quickly.

  He turned with his back to the wall and crouched, waiting for her to get up. Slowly she rolled to her feet and paced toward him. This time she stopped a short distance away.

  “I’m sorry,” she said plaintively. “I know you’re mad. I made a mistake. I just — I thought you were trying to get away from me.”

  “Well, I am now,” Clay said.

  “I don’t want to kill you,” she said, clawing the sand in frustration.

  “Buuuuut you have to,” he finished for her.

  “I had a whole plan,” she said. “A plan where I saved you after Kestrel, and you liked me best of all.”

  “Peril, that’s insane,” he said. “I don’t care if you save me. I want you to save my friends. That’s what’s important to me.”

  She snarled suddenly. “I’m your friend! You don’t need them!” She leaped at his head, and he shoved himself upward, throwing her over him and into the wall. He was across the arena again by the time she was able to crawl to her feet.

  “I’ll stick with the friends who aren’t trying to kill me, thanks,” he called.

  “I’m not — well —” She stamped her talons again. “It’s not fair! The others can have any dragon! I only want you!” Her wings snapped open and she leaped up, then dove at him with her claws outstretched.

  Clay snatched a talonful of sand and threw it in her eyes. She shrieked and blundered sideways in the air. He leaped to grab her shoulders and flung her to the ground. He rolled her onto her back and sat on her, looking down into her face.

  “I know I don’t know much about anything,” he said. “But I think it doesn’t have to work like this.”

  “It does,” Peril said, struggling to push him off. Her talons shoved ineffectually at him. “Dragons kill each other all the time. In war, in here, anywhere, for no reason at all. That’s how we are. Especially you and me. We’re the same. We’re dangerous.”

  “That’s not how I am,” Clay said. “No matter what happened when I hatched. I can’t feel this killer inside me that’s supposed to be there. Maybe that’s what the prophecy is about. Maybe the dragonets are supposed to show everyone how to get along without a lot of killing.”

  He noticed that the closest dragons in the audience were leaning in, listening intently. He hadn’t been speaking for the whole stadium to hear, but at least a few had.

  Queen Scarlet wasn’t among them. “Hurry up and do it, then,” she called from her balcony. “You have her at your mercy. Use your venom! That was thrilling, and I didn’t even get to see it the first time!”

  Clay and Peril stared at each other for a moment.

  “Did she just say what I think she said?” Clay asked.

  “But if the venom didn’t come from her,” Peril said, “then where —”

  Clay whipped around to face the balcony as Glory suddenly reared up in a blaze of sunflower gold and cobalt blue. She snapped her thin chain like a reed and launched herself off the marble tree. Her mouth was wide open, hinged like a snake’s. She hissed, and a jet of black liquid shot out of her two longest fangs.

  Burn shoved Queen Scarlet in front of her and shot into the sky. Glory’s venom hit Scarlet on the side of her face.

  The SkyWing queen began to scream.

  The stadium erupted in pandemonium. All the dragons tried to take to the sky at once, crashing into one another and clawing viciously to ge
t away from Glory and the screaming queen.

  “Wait!” Peril grabbed Clay as he jumped away from her. She reached up and touched the bindings on his wings. They broke apart instantly, and his wings stretched free for the first time in the Sky Kingdom.

  “Thank you,” he called, lifting off.

  The guards on the balcony had all scattered after Burn, so when Clay landed next to Glory, there was no one left but him and her and Tsunami, and Queen Scarlet, who was beating her own head with her wings and staggering toward the edge.

  “Glory!” Clay cried. “You’re awake!”

  “Of course I am!” she flared, tugging on Tsunami’s chains. “You couldn’t tell I was faking? I was waiting for the right moment to do something. Did you seriously think I was asleep this whole time?”

  “Uh —” Clay said.

  “You looked pretty asleep,” Tsunami said.

  “Well, that’s great,” Glory said. “For the first time in my life, I pretend to be as lazy as everyone thinks RainWings are, and you actually believe it. I’m glad my friends have so much faith in me.”

  “Hey, you never told us you could do that,” Clay said, pointing to her venom-spitting teeth. Beyond them, Queen Scarlet crashed into her throne and screamed even louder. Her gold chain mail was starting to melt into her scales.

  “I never could before,” Glory said. “Are you going to help me with this?”

  Clay grabbed the marble tree and tried to lever it under Tsunami’s chains.

  “So how did you do that?” he asked.

  “Oh,” Glory said, “well, there’s a logical scientific explanation and seriously, right now you want to have this conversation?”

  “You scared off Burn, but she won’t stay gone for long,” Tsunami pointed out.

  Clay gave the sky a worried look. “Peril!” he shouted. “Get over here!”

  “No!” Tsunami said. “Not her! Keep her away from me!”

  “We need her help,” Clay insisted as Peril landed beside him. “Their chains and bindings,” he said to Peril. She hesitated. “Please,” he added. “If we’re really friends.”

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