The dragonet prophecy, p.7
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.7

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  He swept his tail around, trying to feel how big a rock he was standing on. It was big — it stretched farther than he could reach. He edged forward until he was sure he was standing on the bank of the river. A slope beside him rose away from the water.

  He could feel a small trickle of a stream bubbling down the slope, joining the river near his talons. Clay dropped his head, trying to think. Now that he was out of the water, the cold was penetratingly deep. It coiled and twisted around his bones.

  He coughed, hoping to summon a flame, but it was no use. Some dragons carried fire within them always — a SkyWing or a NightWing could blast flames anytime. SeaWings and IceWings could never breathe fire. But others, like MudWings, needed the right conditions — warmth most of all.

  Remembering all his fire-breathing failures, Clay could hear Kestrel’s scornful voice hissing about what a disappointment he was. Not this time, he thought. I will figure this out.

  He could guess what the roaring was, although he had never seen a waterfall. And he certainly didn’t want to experience one for the first time in total darkness. Even if he could fly over it, without his sight he’d be sure to run into something and crash.

  But he couldn’t leave the river — could he?

  Clay set one claw in the trickling stream and was surprised to find it was a little warmer than the river. Where did it come from? Up … surely up meant closer to the surface and the outside world.

  He inhaled, hoping to catch the scent of the outside. But the only faint smell was of rotten eggs.

  He set his jaw. The stream had to lead somewhere. Somewhere not over a waterfall. Clay spread his wings to feel the cave walls and crept up the stream, slipping now and then on the slick stone.

  Soon he felt a ledge ahead of him. He climbed over it and splashed into a deeper pool. The rotten-egg smell was much stronger up here. He tried to wade forward, and the water crept up his legs. Suddenly he felt a stinging pain slice through the softer scales of his underbelly. With a hiss, he scrambled back up on the ledge.

  His wings caught on something sticky overhead, and he felt the same sharp pain shivering through his tendons. He pulled his wings in close to his body, quickly, but the stickiness came with it and suckered onto his scales like enormous, globby leeches. It felt like the poison in Dune’s tail stabbing him in a thousand places, dissolving his skin from the inside out.

  Clay let out an agonized yell and tried to stumble back down the slope to the river. But he’d lost the feel of the stream under his claws. He was stumbling blind over bare rocks. Frantic to escape the pain, he lunged toward the sound of the waterfall.

  His head collided with something hard that knocked him to the cave floor.

  As he lost consciousness, his last thought was, I failed them.

  Freezing water splashed over Clay’s head. He woke up with a gasp as the rest of his body was plunged into the river. Strong talons gripped his shoulders, shoving him under the water.

  He thrashed, terrified, and the current nearly dragged him away. The other dragon yanked his head into the air and shouted, “Quit struggling! I’m saving you!”

  Clay went limp and let himself be shoved under again. He felt the sticky poison washing from his scales, although the pain lingered. As his panic died down, memory clicked on. He lunged back to the surface.

  “Tsunami!” he yelped. He tried to wrap his wings around her, flapping and splashing in the dark.

  Her claws dug into the spines along his back. “Seriously, Clay, stop moving!” She whacked his tail back into the water with her own. “I don’t know what this white stuff is, but it smells awful, and I think it’s trying to dissolve your scales. You stay in the water until it’s all gone.”

  She moved his claws to the rock and helped him hang on against the fierce current while she poured more water over his head. He strained his eyes, trying to see her, or even a black shadow that might be her, but it was too dark. He clung to the feeling of her cold, wet scales against his. She was really here.

  “How did you get free?” he asked through chattering teeth. They had to shout to be heard over the roaring waterfall.

  “Fire,” Tsunami said. “I realized, if Kestrel’s flames could merge the chains together, maybe more fire would break them apart. She knew I couldn’t do it, and as usual she figured we wouldn’t help each other, because that’s not ‘dragon nature’ or whatever. It took Sunny and Starflight together to get their fire hot enough, but they blasted one of the links until it melted. And then I followed you, as fast as I could.”

  Clay rested his head on the rock by her talons. It felt like the cracks between his scales were singing high-pitched arias of pain. “Well,” he said, “as you can see, it’s going great so far. I was just about to save the day.”

  “You would have,” Tsunami said. “I’m sure you would’ve woken up soon and made it to the river on your own.” She batted one of his wings lightly with hers.

  Clay wasn’t sure of that at all. But he wasn’t about to add “whining” to the list of things wrong with him.

  “Did you see the glowworms?” he asked instead. “Kind of cool, right?”

  “Oh, I can beat that.” A moment passed, and then Tsunami’s stripes began to glow along her wings and tail. She even turned on the whorls of light along her snout.

  Dimly, the cave took shape around them. Clay had never been so happy to see anything in his life.

  “Thanks,” he said. “It seems kind of unfair. You guys can see in the dark — it’s the rest of us who actually need glowing scales.”

  Tsunami ducked her head in an odd, embarrassed way. “Well, they’re not meant to help us see,” she said.

  Clay stretched his legs and tail under the water. The goop on his scales was gone, but the stinging was still there, battling the freezing numbness caused by the river. “Really?” he said, trying to take his mind off the pain. “Then why do you glow?”

  “It’s — well —” He’d never seen Tsunami stammer over anything. Now he was really curious.

  “Tell,” he said, splashing her.

  “You know, you’re doing that thing you do,” she said, “where you talk about something ridiculous so you don’t have to deal with something serious.”

  “Am not!” Clay protested. “You’re the one who’s ducking the question.”

  “All right, fine!” she said with a grimace. “Glowing in the dark — Webs says it’s to attract other SeaWings. That’s how we choose our partners, or whatever.” She shoved his head under the water again, and he came up sputtering. “Now aren’t you sorry you asked?”

  He was, a little bit. The idea of Tsunami leaving them for another SeaWing with cool glowing scales made Clay feel extra-blobby and drab.

  “So, we can’t go up the rocks,” he said. “What do we do about the waterfall?” He hoped she wouldn’t ask whether his scales still hurt. He just had to tough it out until the pain went away.

  She grinned. “We dive right over it!” she said. “How high could it be?”

  “And how many sharp rocks could there be at the bottom?” he countered. “I’d like to see what we’re jumping off first, please.”

  “All right, let’s go check it out,” she said, releasing him and leaping into the water. The current whooshed her away, and he had to let go of his rock to follow her quickly, before the light of her scales disappeared.

  “Tsunami!” he called. There was no way she could hear him over the roaring waterfall. An underwater boulder slammed into his belly, and he inhaled a mouthful of river. Choking and coughing, he paddled after the blurry glow in the distance.

  Suddenly the glow vanished, and he was plunged into darkness again. “TSUNAMI!” he roared.

  A heartbeat later, Clay felt the air suddenly yawn wide in front of him. Some instinct kicked in, and he lashed out with his talons and tai
l. One of his claws caught a jagged spur of rock, and he flung his front talons around it just as the rest of him flew out into space.

  He was dangling over the waterfall.

  He dug his claws into the rock and hung on for dear life, scrunching his eyes shut even though the darkness was dark enough. His poison-riddled skin screamed with agony as it stretched below his scales. He couldn’t bear to think of how far Tsunami might have fallen. He could picture her broken body, somewhere far below him. . . .

  Something whacked his foot.

  “Watch out, Clay!” Tsunami’s voice teased. “It’s really dangerous! You might stub a claw!”

  Clay opened his eyes.

  The waterfall crashed along beside him, cascading into a foamy pile of bubbles only a short distance below his dangling back claws. Tsunami was splashing and somersaulting in the pool, flipping waves at him with her tail.

  “Hang on tight!” she cried. “Whatever you do, don’t let go!”

  “Ha ha ha,” he said. He stirred the water below him with his tail, checking for rocks, then let himself drop. The waterfall gently battered his head as he resurfaced. “You knew how short it was,” he said accusingly.

  “Maybe,” she said with a grin. “All right, yes. I’d just gotten to the edge when I heard you yell and went back for you.”

  “Lucky I’m not the type to suffer and die in silence,” Clay said. But he couldn’t help thinking … What would have happened if I hadn’t cried out? What if we had missed each other?

  “Come on, the river keeps going this way,” Tsunami said. Her webbed feet swooped through the water, shooting her out in front of him. He followed her through the pool into another narrow channel, with rocky banks on either side.

  “But —” He cocked his head. His ears twitched. “I think — that can’t be all the roaring, then? Is there more up ahead?” There were weird echoes in these caves. He couldn’t tell if he was hearing the roar of the small waterfall magnified, or if there was something else.

  Tsunami suddenly spread her wings and spun to a halt, gazing up at the ceiling. “Did you see that?”

  Clay squinted into the darkness. Her luminescent scales didn’t cast light very far; he couldn’t even see the stalactites that were probably up there. “No.”

  “It was a bat!” Tsunami excitedly slammed the river with her tail, submerging Clay in a tidal wave of water.

  He came up gasping for air. “A bat? Why are we drowning me over a bat?” Once a bat had blundered in through the sky hole. It had flapped pathetically around the study cave until Sunny begged Dune to catch it and set it free. Clay was half convinced that Dune had eaten it instead, but at least he’d done it where Sunny couldn’t see him.

  “Because it must have come from somewhere,” she said. “Bats go outside to hunt. So if bats can get in and out, I bet we can, too. We must be close.”

  “Bats are a lot smaller than we are,” Clay pointed out, but Tsunami had already started swimming. He flexed his wings under the water, worried. The pain wasn’t going away. It felt like tiny, sharp teeth biting him all over, under his scales.

  “Look,” Tsunami yelled from up ahead. “I see light!”

  Clay beat his wings quickly, trying to catch up. It helped that the current was getting faster again.

  But then — was the roaring getting louder, too?

  He came around a bend in the river and saw a circle of silvery light in the distance. The dark outline of Tsunami’s head was barreling toward it.

  Clay couldn’t believe his eyes. It was moonlight, just like he’d seen through the sky hole. There really was a way out, and they’d found it.

  He was speeding along now, barely using his legs to paddle as the river whisked him toward the light.

  Suddenly, a piercing shriek echoed through the cave, and Tsunami disappeared.

  Please be another joke, please be another joke, Clay prayed, swimming as fast as he could. The moonlit entrance yawned wide in front of him, and then, abruptly, he shot out into open space.

  The river plunged out of the cave and straight down a tall, sheer cliff.

  Clay’s wings flew open and he banked, catching the air before he fell.

  He was flying!

  Clay had flown before — short hops around the caves, dodging the stalactites and flapping in circles — but that was nothing, nothing compared to this.

  Everything was so big.

  The sky was everywhere, it just … went on and on and on, like nothing could ever fill it up. It was night, but the light of the three moons was dazzling after a lifetime of caves and sputtering torches. Craggy mountain peaks bit into the sky all around him. In the distance he thought he saw a glimmer of sea.

  And the stars!

  Clay had thought he knew stars from gazing out of the sky hole. He’d never known how many there were, or how they looked like a silver net cast across the dark.

  He felt like he could keep flying up and up forever, all the way to the moons. He wondered if any dragon had ever tried to do that.

  This is what we’ve been missing. All this time . . .

  Even the sharp lines of pain between his scales couldn’t take away his excitement.

  “Can you believe this?” he called, spinning in the air. “Tsunami! Isn’t it amazing?”

  There was no answer.

  Clay lashed his tail to stop spinning and hovered, his eyes darting around the sky. He couldn’t see Tsunami anywhere. She wouldn’t have flown off without him … would she?

  Maybe she’d seen the faraway sea. Maybe she saw her home and couldn’t resist. Clay knew she wouldn’t abandon her friends, but he also knew how desperately she wanted to return to the ocean.

  He glanced down toward the horizon and spotted her, far below him, flapping in a frantic downward spiral.

  Something was wrong.

  It looked like only one of her wings was working.

  Clay twisted into a dive and barreled toward her. He tucked his wings close to his body, fighting back the terror as he plummeted. Wind whistled past his face — wind! He’d imagined it all wrong. It was like a live thing: grabbing his tail to throw him off balance, whisking in his eyes to blind him, flaring under his wings to slow him down. It seemed to dig icicle-sharp claws into his skin, slicing under his scales.

  The waterfall and the cliff shot past at lightning speed. Was he falling too fast? The ground hurtled toward him, shadows and moonlight mixed in shapes he’d never seen and couldn’t understand. He had no idea how far away it was, or how soon he would reach it. He’d never dealt with distances like this before.

  Would he be able to stop? Would it hurt when he did?

  But he could see Tsunami below him, still struggling, so he knew that she hadn’t hit the bottom yet, and that made him braver.

  He fell, and fell, and fell, and she got closer and closer until . . .

  Clay passed her and instantly flared his wings open. His body slammed upright like he’d run into a wall, and then a moment later he was whammed again, this time by a heavy SeaWing landing on him from above.

  He tumbled, nearly losing Tsunami over his head, but they caught on to each other with their talons and held tight. With her claws wrapped fiercely around his neck, Clay battled to stay aloft, beating his wings in wide arcs. He wasn’t strong enough to lift her, but at least he could slow her fall.

  Tsunami let out a yelp, and then Clay felt something like claws snag his wings and tail. They lost their hold on each other as they fell through the trees, smashing branches and ripping off leaves before they thudded to earth.

  It took Clay a moment before he could breathe again. Tsunami’s tail was flopped across his snout. He pushed it aside and sat up, creaking with pain. Tsunami rolled over onto her back, letting her wings flop out to either side. Close up, Clay could see that he
was right. One of her azure-blue wings was crooked, as if it had been wrenched out of her shoulder.

  He touched it with one claw, and they both winced.

  “What happened?” Clay asked.

  “Getting out of the chains,” Tsunami said. “I think I dislocated it.”

  “And you came after me anyway?” Clay said, appalled. “Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?”

  She shrugged and winced again. “It didn’t hurt so much in the river, but once I tried to fly . . .”

  “DIRT!” Clay yelled suddenly. “I’m standing on dirt!” He stabbed his claws into the ground, and they sank right into the earth. A thrill ran through him from snout to tail.

  Tsunami sat up to look at him. “Yay?” she said.

  “It’s amazing!” he cried. “Feel how soft it is!” He seized a handful of dirt and flung it at her.

  “Hey, quit that!” she protested, defending herself with her good wing.

  Clay flattened himself to the grass, feeling the warm earth crumble around his legs and clump against his scales. Scents of green and brown and buried sunshine overwhelmed him. It was nothing like the hard, cold, bare rock under the mountain. The ground here was welcoming and full of life. A worm burrowed past his nose, and he snapped it up.

  “Well, now we’re even,” Tsunami said. “I saved you, you saved —”

  “I hear the river!” Clay cried, jumping up and shaking himself. Tsunami ducked the shower of dirt that flew off him. “River plus dirt means mud!” He spun around and raced through the trees toward the sound of bubbling water.

  Tsunami found him rolling blissfully in the muddy banks of the river. “I don’t think most dragons get this excited about being so dirty,” she said wryly.

  “I bet my kind do,” Clay said, ignoring her sarcasm. “I’ve never been this warm in my whole life.” For the first time ever, his claws didn’t ache, his scales didn’t itch, his wings didn’t feel too dry, and he wasn’t worried about stubbing his talons every other step. He felt the mud squelch into the gaps between his scales and realized that the pain from the cave poison was fading, as if the mud was healing him. He sighed happily, squishing himself farther down into the damp riverbank.

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