The dragonet prophecy, p.9
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.9

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  He could still hear the faint roar of the waterfall, so he could guess which way the underground river flowed. He pictured the tunnel from the study cave to the central hall and mapped it out on the craggy rocks below.

  “Here,” he called to Tsunami, swooping down to land. “The boulder blocking the exit should be right below here. So the tunnel to the outside would go that way —” He turned to look.

  “The ravine,” Tsunami said. A crevasse cut through the rocks a short distance away. When they peered down into it, they could see a stream running over pebbly gravel and sandy mud. “The entrance must be down there somewhere.”

  Clay hopped down to the bottom of the ravine, keeping his wings spread to slow his fall. Mud squelched between his talons as he landed. He felt a wave of anger wash over him. Here was mud and sunlight and warm fresh air, this close to their cave. Why hadn’t the guardians ever brought the dragonets outside? Even small trips to this ravine would have made life so different.

  He knew they’d say it was for safety. They’d say it was to protect the dragonets, in case the distant SkyWings spotted them.

  But Clay guessed it was really because the guardians didn’t trust him and his friends. They didn’t trust them not to fly away. They didn’t trust them to act smart and avoid drawing attention to themselves.

  He dug sharp gashes in the mud with his claws. The dragonets never even had a chance to be trustworthy. Maybe Clay didn’t deserve it, after attacking the others at hatching. Maybe the guardians thought that something inside him might snap at any moment. But there was no reason to have kept Sunny and Glory and Starflight and Tsunami in the dark all these years.

  Tsunami thumped down beside him and nodded at a mossy pile of boulders up ahead.

  “Let’s check there first.” They squished and splashed down the stream.

  Clay spotted something in the mud in front of them. He flared his wings up to stop Tsunami from going any farther.

  “Look!” he said. “Dragon tracks!”

  Fresh dragon prints were stamped into the riverbank, with the deep line of a tail dragged between them. They disappeared suddenly as if the dragon had lifted off into the sky.

  Clay gingerly fit one of his own feet into a print. It was dwarfed by the size of the other dragon’s talons.

  “If it came from our cave,” Tsunami said, “and I’m sure it did — then it must be Kestrel.”

  “How do you know?” Clay asked.

  Tsunami put her own foot down next to one of the prints. “No webs between the claws,” she said, “so it’s not a SeaWing. They’re too recent to be Morrowseer’s from yesterday. And you can see all four feet here, so it’s not Dune.”

  “Oh,” Clay said, feeling foolish. “Of course.”

  “There are prints leaving, but not coming back,” Tsunami said, her voice rising with excitement. “Maybe she went out looking for us this morning. If she’s still away, this is our best chance to get the others out.” She started running down the riverbank, following the line of prints to where it began. “Come on, Clay, hurry!”

  Clay raced after her. The tracks led right to the tumble of boulders. When they climbed up onto the large rocks, they could see down into a dark tunnel in the side of the ravine. It was almost entirely hidden from view unless you looked from the right angle.

  “This is it,” Tsunami whispered.

  “Why didn’t she hide her tracks better?” Clay worried. “What if it’s a trap?”

  “It’s not,” Tsunami said confidently. “Kestrel doesn’t know we’re coming back for the others. She doesn’t think like that. If she were one of us, she’d escape and leave everyone else behind without a second thought.”

  That sounded true to Clay. Kestrel never believed that dragons could keep their word or care about other dragons.

  “She was in a hurry to find us, that’s all,” Tsunami pointed out. Clay glanced up at the sky anxiously. If Kestrel hadn’t bothered to be cautious, she must be really angry with them.

  Tsunami lowered herself into the tunnel, and Clay slid down beside her. He was warm enough now to make fire, so he breathed a small burst of flame to give them a glimpse of the tunnel ahead. They edged forward as Tsunami’s scales began to glow.

  The tunnel took a sharp right, then a left, then went down at a steep angle for a few steps. But soon it straightened out, took them around another corner, and ended — at an enormous gray boulder.

  Clay’s heart thumped hard in his chest. They’d really found it.

  He was looking at his prison from the outside.

  Tsunami reared up on her back legs and began running her talons along the walls. “Look for something that’ll move the boulder,” she said.

  Clay breathed another burst of fire at the wall on his side. It looked like ordinary flat stone with a few fissures running from the ceiling to the floor. He scraped his claws through the cracks. Nothing happened except his claws tingled painfully.

  He tried sniffing around the boulder, then shoved it, but it wouldn’t move any more than it had on the other side.

  “I hope Starflight’s right,” he said, pushing away the sinking feeling in his stomach. “I hope we really can open it from this side.”

  “We can,” Tsunami said fiercely. “It’ll be a lever or something . . .” She backed away a few steps, peering up at the top of the boulder.

  “Or magic,” Clay said. “What if it’s a magic word? Or some kind of talisman we don’t have?”

  Tsunami stared at the boulder for a moment, frowning, then shook her head. “They’d need an animus dragon to enchant it, and who even knows if those ever existed in the first place.”

  The only thing Clay remembered about the lesson on magic and animus dragons was that they had power over objects. He remembered that because Starflight spent the rest of the day sticking his nose in the air and insisting that NightWings were far more magically powerful than any mythical animus dragons.

  “If they’re so great, why do the NightWings live somewhere mysterious where no one can find them?” Clay had asked.

  “Easy,” Starflight had said loftily. “It’s because we have all these special powers, and we don’t want to make regular dragons feel inferior.” Even though they are, his expression implied.

  Clay snorted. “Special powers like what?” he’d asked.

  “You know,” Starflight had answered, irritated. “Telepathy? Precognition? Invisibility? Hello?”

  “You don’t have invisibility,” Clay had argued. “I mean, you’re a black dragon. You’re just hard to see in the shadows. That’s not a power. I’d be invisible, too, if I were lying in a mud puddle.”

  “Yeah, well,” Starflight had said, “we can appear out of nowhere in the dark of night! Swooping down as if the sky has just fallen on you!” He’d spread his wings majestically.

  “Still not a power,” Clay had said. “That’s just you guys being creepy.”

  “It is not creepy!” Starflight had cried, his voice rising. “It is magnificent and imposing!” He’d stopped and taken a deep breath. “Besides, we’re the only ones with visions of the future, so there.”

  “Well, I say until the NightWings come down off the clouds, all we have is rumors and a mumbo-jumbo prophecy that could mean anything.” Then Clay had draped his nose off the rim of the ledge and peered across at Starflight. “I mean, it’s not like you’ve got any special mind powers, other than being way too smart.”

  “Well, I’ll have powers eventually,” Starflight had huffed. “Maybe it’s something NightWings develop when we’re older. You’re supposed to be studying, not making fun of me!”

  “I wasn’t making fun,” Clay had protested. It was true he’d been trying to distract Starflight from studying, though. But of course that never worked for long.

  Now Clay scraped at the floor und
er the boulder. He actually missed Starflight. More than that, he was worried about him. How had Kestrel reacted when she couldn’t find Clay, Tsunami, or Glory? She wouldn’t hurt Starflight or Sunny … would she?

  Suddenly his claws caught on something. He flattened himself to the stone floor and peered underneath the boulder. A long, sturdy stick was jammed under the rock, holding it in place.

  “Here,” he whispered to Tsunami. He wrapped his talons around the stick and tried to yank it free. After a few tries, he realized it wouldn’t come loose, but it did move from side to side. He tried sliding it sideways, and the boulder began to roll. He stopped quickly and looked at Tsunami.

  “What if Webs and Dune are waiting for us?” Clay asked.

  “They can’t stop us, not all five of us — not if we all fight. The only way they kept us in was by blocking the way out. Once it’s open … we’ll all be free.” Tsunami let out a long breath.

  “All right,” Clay said, gritting his teeth. “Let’s do this.”

  He shoved the stick as hard as he could. The boulder slowly rolled aside with a soft scraping sound. The central cave came into view, and a shiver ran along Clay’s tail at how strange it looked from the outside.

  A forlorn little shape was huddled by the river, trailing her talons in the water. She turned as the boulder moved, and her gray-green eyes went wide.

  “Shhh,” Tsunami hissed quietly, bounding across the cave toward her. Sunny leaped up at the same moment and threw her wings open. She pressed her front talons to her snout, beaming.

  “You did it!” she whispered.

  Clay glanced at the tunnel that led to the guardians’ cave. Even if Tsunami was right that Webs and Dune couldn’t stop them, he didn’t want to stick around and find out. “Where are the others?” he asked quietly.

  “I’ll get Starflight,” Sunny said, heading for the study cave. “Glory — I don’t know.” She glanced up at the stalactites. Clay felt a stab of worry. Was Glory all right? What if something had happened to her while she was camouflaged — would she have stayed invisible? What if she had fallen off a stalagmite or flown into an outcropping and hurt herself? What if —

  “Right here,” a voice whispered in his ear. Soft wings brushed his, and Glory’s long shape shimmered into view. Her scales shifted from gray and black to a warm golden orange flecked with dark blue.

  “You’re all right,” Clay said. In his relief, he twined his tail around hers without thinking.

  She tensed, but she didn’t pull away immediately like she normally would. Instead she nudged him with her elegant snout. “Of course I am,” she said. “I would have been fine on my own, you know.”

  Perhaps she felt his wings droop, because she added, “But thank you for doing insanely dangerous things for me anyway.”

  “Anytime,” Clay said happily.

  Glory stepped back and nodded at where Starflight was staggering out of the tunnel from the study cave.

  “Kestrel was pretty furious,” she said. “I just had to listen to her from my hiding place. Those two got the brunt of it.”

  Clay started forward, but Tsunami and Sunny were already on either side of Starflight. For a horrible moment he thought Starflight was limping — that he’d been beaten or burned or terribly injured by Kestrel.

  Then he realized that Starflight was moving oddly because he was carrying a giant sack of scrolls on his back.

  “Oh, no you don’t,” Tsunami said, pulling it away from him. “We don’t need these. And you’ve already read them all a thousand times.”

  “We might need them,” Starflight protested, yanking it back. “They’ll tell us what’s safe to eat and all the different tribal customs and how to fly in bad weather and —”

  “You can tell us all those things,” Clay said. “You’re going to anyway.”

  “But what if I forget something important?” Starflight fretted.

  “Ha. You’d be a lot more likable if you ever did forget anything,” Glory said.

  “The only thing that’s important is getting out of here right now,” Tsunami said. “Before Webs and Dune wake up.”

  “And before Kestrel comes back,” Glory added.

  “What thrilling news. Kestrel is part of this? I’ve been looking for her for an awfully long time.”

  The five dragonets whirled around.

  Queen Scarlet was standing in the entranceway. Behind her, the tunnel was blocked by a row of SkyWings in different shades of flame — all of them large, all of them breathing small spurts of fire, and all of them angry.

  But none of them looked as angry as the queen of the SkyWings.

  “I haven’t seen Kestrel in, what, seven years?” Queen Scarlet said in a pleasant voice that didn’t match the rage in her eyes. “What a fun reunion this is going to be.” She whipped her tail back and forth behind her. “All my least favorite dragons in one place.”

  Clay was the closest dragonet to her. He took a step back toward his friends and spread his wings. She’d have to go through him to get to them. He hoped she couldn’t see how his claws were shaking.

  “You followed us here,” Tsunami said in a choked voice.

  “Oh, I didn’t have to,” said the queen. “Someone sent up a lovely, helpful smoke signal for me. Led us all right here. What a brilliant idea.”

  My idea, Clay thought, horrified. This is my fault. I brought the SkyWings down on us.

  “Who — who are you?” Sunny squeaked.

  “Now really, this is getting insulting,” said the queen. “You’re in my territory. Apparently you’re living under my mountain. I am only the most important dragon for hundreds of miles. How dare you not recognize me?” She arched her neck and spread her bejeweled wings.

  “Queen Scarlet of the SkyWings,” Starflight breathed. He crouched low, touching his head to the floor and crossing his front talons together.

  “Now that’s more like it,” she said, striding into the cave. “Three moons, it’s gloomy in here.” She glanced around, spotted Starflight’s sack of scrolls, and set it ablaze with one burst of fire.

  Starflight stared at the burning scrolls, frozen in place. Clay edged sideways, trying to shield him and Sunny and Glory all at once. If only he were bigger!

  “My goodness,” Queen Scarlet said, squinting. “You’re a NightWing!” She batted Clay aside as if he were made of leaves and grabbed Starflight’s chin. Clay scrambled up again and took a step toward her, but the clanking of armor and grim expressions of the SkyWings spilling into the cave made him stop.

  “A NightWing not yet ten years old,” Queen Scarlet said, turning Starflight around and prodding his scales like he was a cow she planned to eat for dinner. “How thrilling! They don’t normally let their dragonets out into the world. We might corrupt their superior perfection or something, you know.” She breathed smoke into his face, and he coughed. “I’ve never had a NightWing in my arena before. Thrilling, thrilling! Tell me, what am I thinking right now?”

  Starflight’s expression was pure terror.

  “Too hard?” Queen Scarlet teased. “I’ll give you a hint. I’m thinking — now why would a NightWing, a SeaWing, and a MudWing be hiding out under my mountain? Along with whatever those two are that the MudWing is cutely trying to protect?” She flicked her tail at Glory and Sunny. Clay shivered as the queen leaned closer to Starflight. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain prophecy, would it?”

  “What is going on out here?” Dune grumbled, limping into the cave. He stopped short at the sight of the SkyWings. His black eyes turned slowly toward the queen, and Clay saw fear on his face for the first time ever.

  “Webs!” he yelled, and then the maimed SandWing hurtled across the cave toward the queen.

  “Stop!” Sunny shrieked. “They’ll hurt you!”

  Dune did
n’t seem to hear her. He seized Queen Scarlet and flung her away from Starflight. “Don’t touch them,” he roared. “You’ll never get your claws on them.”

  The queen twisted in midair and landed on her feet facing him, hissing. “They’re mine now,” she snarled. She launched herself at Dune.

  Webs came pounding into the cave just as the SkyWing soldiers erupted toward their queen. He barely paused before throwing himself in their way. His tail smacked three of them back, and his claws raked the underbelly of another. Clay had never seen him fight before. He hadn’t known Webs could be dangerous.

  “Stay back,” Clay said to Sunny. “And you should hide yourself,” he added to Glory.

  “Disappear while you try to die for us again?” she said. “No, thanks.” She pushed past him and went after Tsunami, who was already fighting alongside Webs. Clay shoved Sunny up onto a boulder and ran to join them.

  “Wait, I can help!” Sunny called. “Can’t I?”

  “These dragonets are sacred,” Dune shouted as Queen Scarlet smashed him into a stalagmite. She was smaller than him, but deceptively strong, and his old injuries slowed him down. He staggered up, gasping, with his scarred wing trailing crookedly beside him. “They’re the dragonets of destiny. You can’t have them!”

  “But what if it’s my destiny to play with them?” she said, lashing her claws at his stump. He howled, and a stream of blood poured from the new wound. “Oh, wait, that’s right,” she said. “I don’t care about destiny. I don’t care about prophecies or any of that NightWing silliness.”

  She scored her talons along his wing, ripping open the scars. “Besides, they made me awfully mad and then ran away. That happens to me far too often, but you know what? I always find the ones who betray me in the end. Even if I have to wait seven years.” The queen seized Dune by the neck and pinned him up against the wall. “Right, Kestrel?”

  Clay stumbled. The SkyWing he was fighting knocked him over and trapped his tail and wings beneath four massive feet. The battle seemed to freeze for a moment, and from his crushed position, Clay saw Kestrel slide into the cave.

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