The dragonet prophecy, p.6
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.6

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Starflight shook his head. “Only from the outside. It’s impossible from in here. Believe me, I’ve thought about it.”

  “Maybe the sky —” Sunny said.

  “And we couldn’t force it?” Clay asked Starflight. “Even if we all leaned on it really hard?”

  Starflight shook his head as Glory said, “This is all really sweet, guys, but you shouldn’t get in trouble for me. Morrowseer likes the rest of you. Just let me handle myself.”

  “Stop that,” Tsunami snapped at her. “Acting like a martyr won’t help right now.”

  Glory bristled. “I’m not acting like a martyr. I’m trying to make sure nobody gets killed for no reason.”

  “Besides you,” Tsunami argued. “It’s fine if it’s you getting killed for no reason?”

  “It just doesn’t matter,” Glory said. “I’m not even in the prophecy, so who cares what happens to me?”

  “I swear I’m going to kill you myself,” Tsunami growled.

  “Glory, she’s trying to say that we care,” Clay interjected. “In her usual gentle way.”

  “Guys, what about the sky hole?” Sunny said in a rush, jumping into the brief pause in the conversation. “In the study room? Couldn’t we fly up to it and squeeze out?”

  “Oh, Sunny, don’t be ridiculous,” Tsunami said.

  “It’s way too small,” Starflight explained. “We’d never fit, especially Clay.”

  “But maybe I might,” Sunny said. “I could climb out and then go around and open the boulder from the outside, like Starflight said. Right? And I could let you all out?”

  Clay brushed her wing and twined his tail around hers. Sunny hadn’t even thought of escaping before today, and yet she was volunteering for the most dangerous part of it without any hesitation.

  “It won’t work,” Starflight said. “I’m sorry, Sunny. I’ve flown up to the hole when no one was around.”

  “Me too,” said Tsunami.

  “Me too,” said Glory.

  Clay felt slow. He’d sat below the sky hole often enough, watching the stars or clouds or rain overhead, but he’d never flown up to it or tried to climb out. Apparently the other dragonets had thought about escape a lot more than he had.

  “The hole is smaller than you think,” Starflight said to Sunny. “I can barely fit my head through it. It’s not a way out.”

  “The minders wouldn’t have left it there if it was,” Glory said. She stopped next to Tsunami, waves of dark green pulsing from her ears to her tail. “They’re too careful. There’s no way to escape.”

  “There must be,” Clay said desperately. He could feel time slipping away. Kestrel might come down to kill Glory at any moment. She wouldn’t care if they all saw her do it.

  He could tell that Tsunami was thinking hard. She kept looking at him like she wanted to say something, then stopped herself.

  “What if we tried talking to them?” Sunny offered hesitantly. “Maybe we could convince them to let her go instead?”

  Glory snorted. Nobody else answered. Sunny sighed, pressing her wings back against her sides.

  “You have an idea,” Clay said to Tsunami. “I can tell. You’ve been working on an escape plan forever.”

  She wound her talons through the chains, hissing. “It’s too dangerous,” she said. “It was supposed to be me.”

  He caught her sideways glance and followed her eyes to the river.

  The river.

  They’d only ever gone upstream, into the guardians’ cave. Downstream, the river flowed from the main cavern along the tunnel into the battle cave and then … Clay had no idea where it went. The roof of the battle cave sank lower and lower until the river disappeared. Clay had never explored underwater in the battle cave; he’d never wondered about where the river went.

  But of course Tsunami had.

  “Do you know where the river goes?” he asked.

  “No — I mean, I’ve seen the gap in the wall, but it’s even smaller than the one to the guardians’ cave,” she said. “I’ve never been through in case I couldn’t get back. But the river has to go somewhere.”

  “Can we get out that way?” he asked.

  “Not all of us,” she said. “Only me.”

  “And me,” he said.

  She shook her head. “Clay, you can’t. We have no idea what’s on the other side. You can only hold your breath for an hour — you could get trapped with no air and drown. And you can’t see in the dark like me. You’d be swimming blind into who knows what. It has to be a SeaWing who goes. It has to be me.”

  “And even if you did get out,” Starflight said, “how would you find us again? How would you get back to this cave from the outside?”

  “The sky hole,” Clay said, pouncing on an idea of his own at last. “You guys start a fire in the study room, and I’ll follow the smoke back to you. Then I’ll know the entrance is nearby, and once I find it, I can let you all out.”

  Glory’s eyes glinted. “I can think of a few scrolls I’d like to burn.”

  Clay grinned at the shocked expression on Starflight’s face. “Yeah, me too,” he said. “Throw The Sluglike Qualities of MudWings on there and think of me.”

  “Stop joking about this,” Tsunami cried. “Clay, you can’t go, and that’s final. You’ll almost certainly die.”

  “But Glory will die if I don’t,” he said. “Right? There’s no other way.”

  Tsunami growled and thrashed her whole body, straining against the chains. The heavy links pressed into the scales of her neck, and she stopped with a cough.

  “Wait, you won’t be able to see the smoke until daylight,” Sunny said worriedly. “Won’t Kestrel come for Glory before then?”

  Clay’s hopes dropped like a boulder in his stomach. He hadn’t thought of that. He might not make it back in time — it might all be for nothing.

  Then Glory smiled, and her scales shifted into a warm, rosy pink. “I know what to do,” she said. “Starflight’s method.”

  “Act like a lump and hope no one notices you?” Tsunami said sarcastically.

  “Hey!” Starflight protested.

  “Exactly,” Glory said. She crouched down to the floor. Slowly, as if the stone were eating her alive, grays and browns and blacks crept over her scales. All her beautiful colors faded away. The shadows and crags behind her appeared perfectly reproduced, as if the dragonets were seeing right through her.

  She closed her eyes and vanished.

  “Wow,” Sunny said faintly. “I mean, I knew you could, but … I’d never . . .”

  “The guardians don’t know I can do this.” They all jumped as Glory’s voice came from the top of a stalagmite. “I guess it’s a good thing we never studied RainWings after all. I’ll find a corner and hide. You don’t even have to risk the river, Clay. I could just stay like this.”

  “For how long?” Starflight said. “Until you starve or one of them catches you accidentally?”

  “Tsunami was right earlier,” Clay said. “We do need to get out of here, as soon as we can.”

  Sunny gave Tsunami an unhappy look. “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” she asked, but no one answered her.

  “All right,” said Glory with a sigh. Her green eyes appeared again, halfway across the cave. She was looking straight at Clay. “Do what you want, as long as you’re not doing it only for me. I’ll stay out of the way until Clay comes back to get us.”

  Clay felt like the rosy pink color was rising up through his scales now. Glory trusted him. She believed he could do this.

  He could save her. He could save all of them.

  He just had to survive the river first.

  “I hate this,” Tsunami called softly. “I hate this a lot.” She beat her wings against the chains that trapped her.

“I don’t love it either,” said Glory’s voice.

  “Shhhh,” Starflight scolded from the riverbank. Clay stood in the shallows, shivering as the icy water washed over his talons. He wished he could take fire with him underwater. He wished he knew what he was getting into. He really, really wished he didn’t have to go alone.

  But he had to do this. He glanced at the corner of the cave where Glory had disappeared.

  “Are we sure this is the only way?” Sunny asked, splashing the river with her tail. “I bet I could think of some more ideas, with a little more time.”

  “We don’t have any more time,” Clay said.

  “Follow the current,” Starflight said to Clay. “Don’t leave the river. If it goes out into the world anywhere, the current should take you there.”

  If, Clay thought.

  “Stop and rest anytime you find a place to breathe,” Starflight went on. “If you can’t find a place where the river surfaces, don’t panic or you’ll run out of air faster.”

  Clay felt like he was panicking already. When he thought about swimming into inky blackness with no idea if he’d ever breathe again, his whole body tightened with fear.

  He felt the brush of wing tips next to his and turned. The river eddied around the blurry outline of Glory beside him.

  “Go hide,” he whispered.

  “Thank you, Clay,” she said quietly. “I’ll never admit I said this, but … I want you to know I would never have made it through the last six years without the four of you.”

  “Same here,” Clay said. Growing up under the mountain without Glory, Sunny, Tsunami, and Starflight would have been too miserable to bear.

  “Me too,” Starflight said.

  Sunny nodded. She twined her tail in Glory’s and touched one of Clay’s talons.

  “Good luck,” said Glory. She stepped out of the river and melted back into the shadows.

  “Be really, really careful, Clay,” Tsunami said. Her chains were taut around her legs and neck as she leaned toward them. “Come back if you have to. Don’t keep going if it’s too dangerous.”

  “Don’t you dare die,” Sunny added, flinging her forearms around his neck and beating his wings with hers.

  “You all stay safe, too,” Clay said. He took a deep breath, then another. “I’ll be rolling away that boulder before you know it.” He couldn’t delay any longer. He nodded to his friends and dove into the river.

  Swimming helped warm him a little, but his scales still felt crusted with ice by the time he’d made it down the tunnel to the battle cave. He swam to the far wall, where the rock sloped down into the water. He floated for a moment, feeling the current tugging him. Then he inhaled and dove down.

  By the flickering light of the torches above, he could see the patch of wall that was darker than the rest. Tsunami was right; this hole was smaller than the gap to the guardians’ cave. Well, it was flatter, but wider, too, more like a snarling dragon mouth, complete with sharp outcroppings like teeth. He couldn’t see anything but darkness on the other side.

  Clay reached one forearm into the hole and felt nothing but emptiness. Dark water rushed past him.

  He arrowed to the surface and took the longest, deepest breath of his life, hoping it wouldn’t be his last. The water closed over his head in an awful, final kind of way. He tried not to think about that.

  With a few swift kicks, he swam back to the hole and grabbed the rocks on either side to brace himself. He folded his wings tightly to his body and snaked his head through the hole. His shoulders followed, then his wings, scraping painfully against the stone teeth. His front talons found a lip of rock ahead of him and he seized it, pulling himself forward.

  He felt his shoulders slip into open space just as his haunches got stuck. His back claws scrabbled for a grip. He tried to flatten himself to the rock, squishing himself sideways. He wriggled as hard as he could, remembering Starflight’s instructions. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t —

  He popped loose so suddenly that he spun forward, head over tail, and had to flail around with his wings to straighten himself out. As he did, he felt stone brushing his wing tips on either side. Cautiously he reached out into the darkness.

  Rock pressed closely around him. The river was narrow here and the current was strong. It carried him forward even when he wasn’t trying to swim. Everything was pitch dark.

  He tried paddling up to find the surface of the river, but his head barked painfully against a rock ceiling. There was no air here, only a tight channel filled by the river. He wasn’t even sure there was space to turn around if he wanted to go back.

  But I don’t want to go back. I can’t go back.

  Clay forced himself to swim, kicking his back legs, and waving his wings as much as he could in the cramped space. Water gurgled in his ears, as if it were laughing at his efforts. His heartbeat seemed louder than he’d ever noticed before.

  He didn’t know how long he swam through the dark, twisting channel, but after a while his chest began to hurt. He had never actually tried holding his breath for an entire hour before. The dragonets only knew he could because that’s what it said about MudWings in a couple of scrolls. What if it took practice? What if only full-grown MudWings could do it? What if his lungs were still too small?

  What if he drowned down here, alone, and his friends never knew what happened to him, and Kestrel killed Glory, and he really was the most useless dragonet in Pyrrhia?

  I will not panic.

  Clay climbed toward the surface for the hundredth time, setting his jaw stubbornly. Still only solid rock above him. But — it seemed like the rock was slanting upward. Was it? He reached his wings up to brush against the stone and swam faster.

  The channel was definitely getting wider. He couldn’t feel the walls on either side of him anymore. Suddenly the rock above him disappeared as well. The strength of the current dropped away. It felt as if he’d swum out into a wide-open pool.

  Clay beat his wings, rising up and up through the dark water, his tail lashing to drive him forward. He was deeper than he’d realized, far below the surface.

  But — were those stars above him? He nearly sucked in a mouthful of water in excitement. Could he have made it outside already? Something was shining overhead. He could see small spots of light, like the night sky through the hole.

  His head burst out of the water. Clay yelped with glee as he breathed in and out, in and out, grateful for air like he never had been before.

  But his voice echoed back to him, bouncing off cave walls. This air didn’t smell like the sky, and he couldn’t hear anything beyond the stillness of rock and the fading echoes of his own cry.

  He floated on the surface of the pool. The current was still moving sluggishly somewhere below his talons. All was darkness around him except for those points of light overhead.


  He was still under the mountain, in a cave full of thousands of glowworms.

  The eerie little insects pulsed with a greenish light. Glowing tendrils hung from several of them, like a shimmering star curtain far above him and around him in the pool’s reflection. By their dim light, he could faintly see the distant arch of cave walls.

  He wasn’t outside, but at least he was breathing. He followed Starflight’s advice, resting for as long as he dared. It was so cold in the water that he couldn’t feel the tip of his tail or the outer ridge of his wings. He tried breathing a spurt of fire up into the air, but his chest was too frozen to produce more than a flicker of flame. It was almost more than he could bear to make himself duck under the water again.

  But finally he took another deep breath and dove.

  For a terrible moment he was afraid he’d lost the current. He had no idea where he’d come in. He had no idea if the river even left this cave. What if this wide, silent pool was the
end? Could he make it back to his friends, fighting that strong current the whole way?

  Then he realized that when he floated, there was something carrying him along. It was weaker, but the current was still there. He spread his wings wide and stretched his tail down, letting himself drift like a leaf until he was sure which direction it went.

  On the far side of the cave, in the dim light of the glowworms, he found a passageway where the river left the pool. The ceiling was still far above him. He could swim and breathe for a while longer.

  Clay beat his wings to push himself forward through the water. It was peaceful and creepy at the same time, with all those star-worms glowing overhead like a million burning eyes. But it was much preferable to solid rock, complete darkness, and no air.

  After a while, the current started to pick up again. Clay’s wings brushed against rocks jutting out of the river, and the glowworms were fewer and farther between. The darkness seemed to press down like Kestrel crushing him during battle training.

  And then he heard the roaring.

  Clay’s ears pricked up. Was it dragons? His first thought was that he was hearing Kestrel, roaring in fury as she discovered she had lost Glory and Clay. But he was too far away to hear anything like that.

  Then he started to worry. What would Kestrel do when she found Clay and Glory missing? Would she punish the others — especially Tsunami, all chained up and unable to fight back?

  He was so distracted worrying about his friends that it took him a while to notice that the roaring was getting louder. Suddenly he bashed into a boulder sticking out of the river. Reeling with pain, Clay spun in the water, flailing for a hold on something.

  He crashed into another rock, bounced off, and slammed into yet another. The river was going so fast now that he couldn’t stop himself. He was being dragged toward the roaring at top speed.

  With a jarring shock, he hit a spur of stone and dug in with all his talons. The rushing water whipped past him, seizing his tail and his wings with icy, desperate fingers. Clay fought his way out of the river until finally he stood, gasping, on bare rock.

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