The dragonet prophecy, p.20
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.20

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “No!” Kestrel spat.

  “The largest egg in mountain high,” Glory quoted. “If you hatched with a twin, your egg must have been huge.” Her eyes stayed on the butterfly instead of looking at the other dragonets.

  “That’s true!” Peril said. “Maybe I’m part of your destiny!” She looked at Clay hopefully.

  “Not a chance,” Kestrel said. “Peril and her brother hatched over a year before you misbegotten worms. The prophecy speaks of five dragonets hatching together on the brightest night. Face it, your SkyWing died in the egg. I saw the broken shell and the murdered dragon who carried her.”

  Clay looked down at his muddy talons. Kestrel was right. He hadn’t remembered the exact words of the prophecy. There was no way Peril could be the fifth dragonet.

  “Sorry,” he said to her. Her copper wings slumped. “You can come with us anyway,” he offered.

  “I can’t,” she said. “I have to go back for the black rocks.”

  “Tell me about these black rocks,” Kestrel ordered.

  “You must know,” Peril said. “I need to eat them every day in order to live.”

  Kestrel lashed her tail, uprooting one of the bushes without noticing. “More of Scarlet’s lies,” she spat. “You don’t need anything like that.”

  “But — I stopped taking them and got sick,” Peril said.

  “Poison in your food,” Kestrel said. “One of Scarlet’s favorite tricks.”

  Peril looked up at the palace on the mountain. Smoke curled from her copper scales and her claws dug into the ground.

  “Come with me,” Kestrel said roughly. “I’m not much, but I’m better than Scarlet.” She reached toward Peril and then saw the scorch marks on her own palms and pulled back. Peril ducked her head, huddling into her wings.

  “Where are you going, Kestrel?” Sunny asked.

  “None of your business,” Kestrel answered.

  Sunny sat back, looking hurt. Kestrel took a step toward the lake and rubbed her talons against a rock to sharpen them. She glanced back at Sunny.

  “But I suppose,” she said, “when you realize you need me, you can send me a message through the dragon of Jade Mountain. Not that I’ll come running, mind you. You deserve all the trouble that’s coming to you.”

  “Before you go,” Tsunami said, “tell us what you know about our eggs and where they came from.”

  Kestrel snorted. “Well, there’s no surprises with you. Webs stole your egg from the SeaWing queen’s own hatchery.”

  “Tsunami!” Sunny gasped. “You’re royalty! Just like in the story!” Tsunami twitched her tail, looking surprised and thoughtful.

  “Morrowseer brought us Starflight’s egg,” Kestrel said. “Dune found Sunny’s egg in the desert, hidden near the Scorpion Den. And our big, strong hero came from somewhere around the Diamond Spray Delta, near the sea, where the lowest-born MudWings crawl.”

  Clay turned to look at the river that flowed from the lake. His heart started pounding with excitement. His home — his family — they were closer than he’d imagined.

  “What about me?” Glory asked.

  Kestrel shifted her wings in a shrug. “I have no idea. Webs scrounged you up somewhere after we lost the SkyWing egg. I never cared where, because I knew you weren’t important.”

  “Oh, go away!” Tsunami burst out. “Everything you say is hurtful and mean.”

  “Everything I say is true,” Kestrel said.

  “I don’t think you’d be good for me,” Peril said, staring up at her. “I never imagined you like this.”

  Kestrel hunched her shoulders. “I am the way life has made me. Take it or leave it.” She spread her wings. “Because I’m going now, and you can come with me or not.”

  “Remember,” Clay said to Peril, “she tried to save you. She’s not the kindest dragon, it’s true, but look. She cared about you enough to do this.” He took one of Kestrel’s talons and opened it so Peril could see the scorch marks burned across her palms. Kestrel snapped her teeth at him and yanked her arm back.

  Peril shook her head. “I’m not ready,” she said. “Maybe one day we’ll find each other again.”

  Kestrel’s tail whipped back and forth, churning up the ground. “Well. Suit yourself.” Her orange eyes shifted balefully from one dragonet to the next and landed on Clay. “Listen, MudWing. For all your noble talk, you’re not going to be any use to the others if you can’t fight and kill to defend them. Just think about that.”

  Her words stung, like they always did. His hopefulness wilted a little. Clay felt Sunny nudge him sympathetically.

  Tsunami took a threatening step toward Kestrel, but before she could say anything, the large red dragon spread her wings and launched herself into the sky. She banked over the lake and flew off to the west without looking back.

  Clay met Peril’s eyes. “Some reunion,” she said, glancing down at the blackened earth below her.

  “You can still come with us,” he offered. “Even if you’re not in the prophecy.”

  “No,” she said slowly. “I don’t think … I don’t think I deserve to.”

  He tilted his head at her. “What does that mean?”

  “It’s like you said,” she said. “You’re the kinds of dragonets they write prophecies about. You’re heroes and saviors and I’m — well, I’m the opposite of that. I’m the bad guy.”

  “I’m not a hero,” Clay said. “You’re the one who got us out of the Sky Kingdom.”

  “Only because of you.” She shook her head. “I thought I was born a killer, but it turns out I wasn’t. Queen Scarlet made me that way … or I let myself become that way. It’s like I chose it without knowing I chose it. But you were born that way.” Clay winced, and he felt the other dragonets staring at him. “You knew what you were like, and you chose to be something else. I guess I feel like I can’t be one of you unless I can do that, too.”

  She blinked, her blue-fire eyes taking in each of his friends. “I’m going back to the Sky Kingdom. That’s where I belong, and I need to know if Queen Scarlet is dead.”

  “Don’t you want to leave?” Clay asked. “Don’t you want to see the world outside the Sky Kingdom?”

  Peril stirred the ash below her talons. “Not until I feel like the world can be safe from me,” she said.

  “Can we speed up the touching good-bye?” Tsunami asked. “Because we’ve got company.” She nodded grimly at the top of the cliff.

  Two flights of dragons were lifting off in graceful spiral formations. One group gleamed red and gold; the other shimmered with pale white heat. The unmistakable shape of Burn soared over them both. After a moment, they split apart, and dragons fanned out in every direction. Their wingbeats filled the sky. Their long necks whipped from side to side as they searched.

  The hunt for the escaped dragonets had begun.

  “What do we do?” Sunny asked in a hushed voice.

  “We should get to the delta,” Tsunami said. “We can find Clay’s family there. Maybe they’ll help protect us.”

  “And then we’ll be at the sea,” Sunny said, “so we can find yours, too. And maybe Starflight will find us there? Do you think he’s looking for us?”

  “Doubtful,” said Glory. Sunny’s face fell. “He’s with his wonderful NightWings now. And I hate to point this out, but there are about two hundred dragons overhead who actually are looking for us. The minute we stroll out from these trees, they’ll be on us like fur on a squirrel.”

  “Well, I have an idea,” Clay said hesitantly, “but you’re not all going to like it.”

  “Oh, good,” Glory said. “My favorite kind of plan.” Clay tried to smile at her, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes.

  What have I done now? Clay pointed to the river. “We swim to the delta.”

  Glory made a
face. Her claws rippled from brown to pale blue and back again.

  “I’m not a very good swimmer,” Sunny said anxiously. “But I guess I could try.”

  “They’ll see us from the air,” Tsunami pointed out.

  “Not Glory,” Clay said. “She can camouflage herself in the river. And if she rides on your back, she’ll hide you, too.”

  Glory and Tsunami both looked less than thrilled at that suggestion.

  “Then we roll Sunny in mud and put her on my back,” Clay went on. “I’ll stick to the shallows, and from the sky we should look like part of the riverbed.”

  Peril jumped in. “I’ll wait till you’re gone and then fly off in a different direction. Maybe I can lead them away for a while. It’s not like they can touch me or do anything to me, once you’re safe.” She glanced at Clay and then away again.

  “All right,” Tsunami said. “It’s our best shot. Let’s do it, then, and quickly.” She slid into the lake with Glory.

  Clay turned to Peril. “Are you sure?” he asked. “What if Burn takes her anger out on you?”

  “How, exactly?” Peril asked. “There’s only one good thing about me, and it’s that no dragon can hurt me. Except you, I guess.” Her wings wavered.

  Clay took her talons in his, feeling the heat draw into his scales. “That’s not the only good thing about you, Peril.” He twined his tail around hers and wrapped his wings around her.

  She leaned into his shoulder. “You make me hope that’s true,” she said.

  “Clay,” Tsunami called. “We have to go.”

  Clay pulled away, and Peril stepped back, rubbing her talons where they had touched him. “Be careful, all right?” he said.

  She nodded. “When you end the war, come back and visit me.”

  Sunny lay down in the mud, letting Clay cover her scales. Her golden glow disappeared under the thick layer of brown. He made sure to submerge her tail and pack mud into the gaps between the spines along her back. When he was done, she didn’t exactly look like a MudWing, but she certainly didn’t look like Sunny anymore.

  “I feel all heavy and goopy,” she said. But her weight was barely more than a cow’s as she climbed onto Clay’s back and clutched the spiny ridges. He lifted her easily and slid toward the lake.

  The other two were already floating in the water, waiting. It was eerie, seeing only the blurry outline of his friends. With her wings spread, Glory hid most of Tsunami’s shape, although bits of blue wings and tail stuck out here and there. Clay hoped it wouldn’t be enough to spot from the sky.

  Sunny wriggled to look over her shoulder at Peril. “Thank you for helping us,” she said.

  “After betraying us first,” Tsunami muttered. Glory shoved her head back under the water.

  “Good luck,” Peril said.

  “You too,” Clay said. “Bye, Peril.”

  As Clay slid into the lake, he felt her eyes staring after him. He hoped she would be all right.

  They paddled along the lakeshore cautiously, trying not to send out too many ripples. The still, clear water flowed around Clay’s talons, icy cold. He felt the stirring of a current as they reached the mouth of the river, and then they were swimming downstream, following the Diamond Spray River away from the mountains.

  Clay felt like his scales were being washed clean of the dust and pain of the arena. His wings stretched free and his friends were close again. Maybe they weren’t safe yet, but at least now he had a chance of protecting them.

  The Sky Kingdom was behind them.

  Ahead of him were the Mud Kingdom swamps and the Diamond Spray Delta, and his parents, and home, at last.

  The dragonets swam and drifted, drifted and swam, all the rest of that day and into the night. When it was fully dark and they hadn’t seen any blasts of fire overhead for some time, they crawled out onto a mud bank to eat and rest.

  It turned out hunting was a lot harder in wide-open grassland than it was in an enclosed cave. Clay cursed the guardians several times as two rabbits and a coyote slipped through his talons. But he finally caught and killed some kind of large, warty pig with leathery skin, which he dragged back to share with the others.

  Sunny came bounding out to help him lift the carcass. “Tsunami caught some fish, too,” she said. “And I dug up these awesome wild carrots but nobody else wants to eat them.”

  “Carrots?” Clay said, wrinkling his snout. “Who would eat those on purpose?”

  “I like them,” Sunny said. “And these are all earthy and crunchy. I bet you’d like them if you tried them.”

  “Nope,” Clay said. “We’re free now. I’m only going to eat what I want to eat from now on.” As long as it’s slow enough for me to catch it, he thought ruefully.

  It was too dark to see much of the landscape around them other than the twisted shadows of trees here and there, but the light of the moons outlined the jagged mountains looming against the sky. Dark shapes wheeled over the peaks like bats. Burn had not given up searching for them, and probably wouldn’t anytime soon, Tsunami pointed out.

  “Why does she want to kill us?” Sunny asked. “We haven’t done anything to her.”

  “She doesn’t trust prophecies,” Tsunami said. “Especially ours. It says two of the sisters will die — of those ‘who blister and blaze and burn’ — but it doesn’t say who. She’d only like it if it said really specifically that Burn was going to have a great victory. Right now it’s too vague and cryptic for her. She’d rather get us out of the way and fight the war on her own terms.”

  “So when we pick who wins, it definitely won’t be her,” Sunny said with a shiver.

  “Maybe Blaze,” Tsunami said, gnawing a piece of meat. “Starflight says she’s dumb, but at least the SandWings like her.”

  “I like the sound of Blister,” Glory said. “There’s nothing wrong with a smart queen. Not that I get a say or anything.”

  Clay glanced at her, surprised, but Tsunami answered before he could ask what that meant.

  “Blister isn’t just smart, though,” Tsunami said. She rested her head on her front talons. “If we can believe the scrolls and everything the guardians told us, she’s cunning and manipulative and doesn’t care what she has to do to become queen. Even if it means destroying the other tribes and the rest of the world along the way.”

  The dragonets fell silent. The enormity of the sky above them made Clay feel very small. It seemed crazy to think they’d get to choose the next SandWing queen, let alone end the war. Who would listen to them? Certainly not the rival queens themselves. How could five dragonets make anything happen?

  Sunny stared up at the moons hopefully. Clay knew how she felt — he wanted Starflight to suddenly drop out of the stars and land beside them again, too. He hadn’t thought he’d miss his know-it-all friend so much, but it felt wrong not to have him there.

  Especially when he probably could have answered some of their questions, like where Glory’s venom had suddenly come from. “Do you think all RainWings can do that?” Clay asked after Tsunami and Sunny fell asleep, curled up together. Glory was lying apart from the others with her tail curled over her nose, staring fixedly at the mountains.

  “How should I know?” Glory demanded. “Has anyone ever told me anything about RainWings — except that they’re lazy and, by the way, in case we haven’t mentioned it a thousand times, not part of the prophecy?”

  “Are you mad at me?” Clay asked. It seemed like she’d barely spoken to him since their escape.

  Glory closed her eyes and didn’t answer. Which seemed kind of like a yes to Clay.

  He didn’t let himself sleep for long, although he was exhausted. They all wanted to keep going while it was still dark. When he forced his eyes open, two of the moons were dipping behind the mountains while the third was glowing high in the sky. The river lapped and
gurgled softly nearby, and the mud was warm under his scales.

  Then he noticed that Glory was gone.

  His heart plunged. He thought, No, I’m not losing anyone else.

  Clay shook the others awake. “Where’s Glory?” he whispered.

  “I knew it,” Tsunami growled, leaping to her feet. “I knew she was angry about something.”

  “About what?” Sunny asked with a bewildered look at the darkness. “Isn’t she glad we escaped?”

  “Maybe she didn’t feel welcome,” Tsunami said, “thanks to this clodhopper.” There was a pause, and then she flicked Clay with her tail. “That’s you, dopey.”

  “Oh.” Clay had been trying to figure out what a clodhopper was. “What did I do now?”

  “Gee, let’s think,” Tsunami said. “Oh, oh, wouldn’t it be amazing if psychotic Peril was our ‘wings of sky.’ Maybe she’s the fifth dragonet we’ve been waiting for our whole lives. Let’s just toss aside Glory, like Morrowseer wanted us to, and replace her with the first SkyWing who comes along.”

  “I didn’t want to replace Glory,” Clay said, appalled. “I just — I thought Peril might fit in with us — but all of us! I never wanted Glory to leave! Besides, wait.” He clutched his head. “It was Glory’s idea. She said Peril might be our SkyWing.”

  “Yeah, well, you weren’t supposed to get so excited about it,” Tsunami said.

  “What?” Clay sputtered. “That’s not fair. It’s like I’m in trouble for failing some kind of secret test only girl dragons know about.”

  “I didn’t know about it,” Sunny objected.

  “No, you’re in trouble for choosing that vicious SkyWing over Glory,” Tsunami snapped back.

  “I never did!” Clay nearly yelled. “I wouldn’t do that. Nobody told me it was one or the other.”

  “That’s true,” Sunny interjected. “I never thought anyone meant we’d have Peril instead of Glory. I thought we’d all go fulfill the prophecy together.”

  “Of course you did,” Tsunami said to her. “We always know what you’re thinking.”

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