Suddenly Moon let out a yell of pain and crumpled forward, her wings collapsing around her.
Winter stepped toward her, but Kinkajou was faster, catching the NightWing in her wings.
“Moon?” she cried, staggering sideways.
A flash of lightning lit up Moon’s face as the black dragon lifted her snout to the sky. Something blank and weird had taken over her eyes, like frost on a lake.
And then she began to speak in a voice nothing like her own.
“Beware the darkness of dragons,
Beware the stalker of dreams,
Beware the talons of power and fire,
Beware one who is not what she seems.
Something is coming to shake the earth,
Something is coming to scorch the ground,
Jade Mountain will fall beneath thunder and ice
Unless … unless the lost city of night … can be found.”
The voice lurched to a stop and Moon closed her eyes, releasing all the tension out of her wings.
Everyone stared at her. Winter’s heart was hammering like the pelting raindrops. Those words — that couldn’t be what it sounded like, could it?
“By all the snakes,” Qibli said at last. Winter met his eyes in the next flash of lightning. Qibli looked as terrified as he felt — as shaken as he’d been the day of the explosion in their history class. “What was that?”
“That’s what you’ve been muttering in your sleep,” Kinkajou said to Moon.
“It sounded like a prophecy,” Winter said slowly. But it couldn’t be. The NightWings had sworn to everyone that their powers were gone. Tsunami, Sunny, Starflight, Clay, and Glory had confirmed it. No more mind reading. No more prophecies. Ever again. That was what they’d said, exactly.
So someone was lying, but who?
Moon shook her head and pressed herself upright, her wings unsteady. “Turtle,” she said, “please give him one of the rocks.”
The SeaWing fumbled with the armband he always wore. Winter could see that a couple of the black stones were missing from it, and as he watched, Turtle pried out another one and passed it to Winter.
The stone was small, about the size of a dragon’s tooth, and had a strange sheen to it, although that might have been the effect of the rain and the lightning. It was jagged around the edges, but not sharp. It looked fairly ordinary.
“What’s this?” he asked. What does this have to do with prophecies?
“I have a lot to explain,” Moon said. She sounded nervous, as though he might stab her with his tail spikes any moment. Which he’d refrained from doing to anyone so far, so he thought that was rather unfair. “Everything, the whole truth. I’m going to tell you everything.”
“That sounds ominous,” Winter said.
“No more ominous than Jade Mountain will fall beneath thunder and ice,” Qibli said. “I hope we’re all planning to talk about that, because I’m extremely unsettled right now.”
“She said we have to find the lost city of night,” Kinkajou said. “That’s all, and then everything will be fine. Right? Isn’t that what everyone else heard?”
“I’m pretty sure I heard that we’re all going to die,” Turtle said. “Death, death, monsters everywhere, death.”
“Is that it?” Qibli asked Moon. “Is that what you saw? Jade Mountain is going to fall on us all?”
“I don’t know,” Moon said. “I’ve had visions, but none of them ever came out in words like that before. I don’t know what it means.”
Visions? Winter didn’t like the sound of that. He closed his claws around the rock, frowning at her, but Moon had gone quiet, staring into the dark as though she were hearing something else.
A few moments passed, and then she seemed to snap back into herself. “Winter,” she said. “There are a few things you need to know about me.”
“I’m listening,” he said. “Not that I have a choice, apparently.”
“It’s true what you’ve heard about the NightWings,” she said. “They really have lost their powers. There hasn’t been a NightWing who could read minds or see the future in … well, a very long time.” She took a deep breath. “Until me.”
Winter’s tail twitched. His heart felt like the rock in his talons, small and hard.
“Because I hatched in the rainforest,” she went on, “under two full moons, I can do both.”
“Both what?” he forced out past the claws that seemed to be closing around his throat.
“See visions of the future,” she said, then hesitated. “And … read minds.”
Thunder rumbled through the dark clouds like boulders sliding down a mountain.
What had Moon seen in his mind? What did she know?
Did she know that he felt — that he’d been thinking about her — her eyes and the way she tilted her head — her claws that could gently shield his scavenger one moment and rip apart a goat the next — the way she stood up to him the first time they met … but looked at him as though he was worth listening to …
She must know that he thought about her all the time.
Stop thinking about it. Don’t think it — don’t let her see any more —
“But you’re safe now, I promise!” she said quickly, reaching toward him as he leaped back. “The rock you’re holding — it’s skyfire. It can shield your thoughts from me. As long as you’re holding it or wearing it close to your scales, I can’t hear anything you’re thinking.”
“Sounds like another NightWing lie,” Winter snarled. What have you seen in my head? he thought fiercely.
Moon wiped raindrops from her eyes and took a deep breath. “I promise you, Winter. I can’t hear anything in your mind right now. And even before, it was very … confusing.”
Behind her, Qibli let out a snort that sounded a bit too amused.
“That’s how I knew about Icicle and Scarlet,” Moon said. “I heard them talking in Icicle’s dream. And I heard Icicle planning to kill Starflight on her way to the library. But I can only hear what dragons are thinking right at that moment — I can’t reach in and rummage around in anyone’s brain or anything like that.”
Winter found this image not very reassuring at all.
“You’ve been listening to us from the moment you met us,” he said. “Deceiving us. Spying on us.” He hissed out a wisp of frostbreath, turning the raindrops around him into tiny chunks of ice that clattered to the ground. “I should have expected as much from a NightWing.”
But not from this NightWing. He’d thought Moon was different. He’d begun to think she might be the only NightWing in the world he could trust.
And the whole time she’d been lying and snooping around in his thoughts.
He must be the most dim-witted dragon who’d ever lived.
I shouldn’t have let my guard down. I’ve always been taught that NightWings are conniving, underhanded backstabbers; I know the history of what they did to us. This is just more proof of that.
“Go back to Jade Mountain, all of you,” Winter said. “Leave me alone.” He turned to the cage where his scavenger was still standing, staring mournfully out at the rain. “And you, GET OUT OF HERE!” he roared as loud as he could.
Bandit stumbled back with a cry of terror, then bolted out of the cage. The little creature tripped and sprawled on the wet leaves, scrambled upright again, and went galloping off into the dark forest.
Winter saw the look on Moon’s face as she watched Bandit go — sympathetic, pitying, curious. No one else had ever been as interested in scavengers as he was.
He curled his talons around the skyfire rock. “I mean it. Go away. I’m going to the Ice Kingdom, and if you follow me, you’ll die.” He paused for a moment. “Not that I have any objection to your deaths, just to be clear. I just don’t want to listen to you all breathing and flapping and saying stupid things all the way there.”
“That can’t be your plan,” Qibli said. The SandWing was using his annoying “let’s be sensible about this�
� voice. “Go home and beg for help? By the time you get there, your brother might be dead. Your best chance is to catch Icicle.”
“Before she kills Queen Glory,” Kinkajou said fiercely. The little RainWing was now a mango-orange color with streaks of black along her wings. She looked ready to fly into battle — but Icicle was a deadly warrior who could kill a vegetarian rainforest dragon with a snap of her tail.
“I don’t need help from any of you,” he growled. “Especially you.” He threw a glare at Moon, who folded her wings closer around herself but didn’t look away.
“You do, actually,” said Qibli. “You won’t get two steps into the rainforest without our help — it’s full of NightWings now, and everyone knows they don’t like IceWings. And if you find Scarlet, do you think she’ll just tell you where your brother is? Wouldn’t it be useful and much more efficient to have a mind reader with you?”
“Oh, is that what you are now?” Winter asked Moon. “A clever tool that can be used by whoever needs some quick answers?”
“I won’t let anyone use me,” she said with a flash of anger. “But if I can do something good with this — this gift I didn’t ask for — then yes, I’ll do it.”
“Um,” Turtle interjected. Winter shifted his glare to the SeaWing, who had been quietly pacing in circles, splashing through the puddles with his huge talons. “Excuse me. What about the creepy prophecy? Is Jade Mountain in danger? Shouldn’t we … you know, warn someone?”
“I’m not worried,” Kinkajou said. “We know where the lost city of night is. The NightWings abandoned it when the volcano erupted, but we can still get to the island from the rainforest. That’s easy. So we go to the lost city and then all those awful things won’t happen and Jade Mountain will be fine. Right? Nothing to panic about.”
Qibli let out a plume of fire, illuminating Moon’s doubtful expression.
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” she said. “The things I saw when the words came … the things I see in my nightmares … I can’t imagine that just visiting the volcanic island could stop any of that from happening.”
“Well, let’s try it and see,” Kinkajou said enthusiastically.
“But if it doesn’t work,” Turtle said, fidgeting nervously with his claws, “all those dragons at Jade Mountain — my sisters —”
“Hey, I agree with you,” Qibli said. “I’m completely feeling the doom right now. But do you think anyone will believe her?” He nodded at Moon. “When they’ve been told the NightWings have no powers now?”
“Sunny will,” Kinkajou said. “Tsunami might not. She doesn’t like prophecies much.”
“And then what — shut down the whole school based on a maybe-prophecy?” Qibli went on. “I don’t think they’ll do that. Besides, Winter’s problem is urgent. We have to find his brother before Scarlet kills him, so I vote we do that now and deal with the impending apocalypse afterward.”
“Me too,” Moon said.
What in the world made these dragons think his problem was their problem? Finding Hailstorm was urgent to Winter, but it made no sense for any NOT-IceWings to get involved at all.
Winter narrowed his eyes at Turtle, dripping forlornly into the puddles around his claws. It was easy to forget that the SeaWing was a royal prince as well — the son of Queen Coral. He never acted like royalty. Instead Turtle behaved as though he didn’t want to be noticed at all — mumbly, sticking to the background, agreeing to anything.
Was he afraid of something? Or just boring?
If an IceWing acted the way Turtle does, he’d be stuck in the Seventh Circle forever.
Which meant Winter could get rid of him by applying the right pressure.
“You should go back,” he said, making Turtle jump. “You don’t want to tramp around Pyrrhia looking for my deadly sister, who will kill you on sight, or my brother, who might do the same because, by the way, killing SeaWings was a specialty of his. Go keep an eye on Jade Mountain instead.”
Turtle’s glow-in-the-dark scales flickered, illuminating his anxious face with pale greenish light. “But what if the mountain falls on me? Is it dangerous?”
“Not as dangerous as following me,” Winter hissed.
“It’s not going to fall on you, because we’re going to stop it,” Kinkajou said. “But don’t you want to stay with us?”
“I can’t decide what sounds worse,” Turtle admitted. “Chasing killer dragons across Pyrrhia, or sitting at school waiting for some kind of thunder and ice catastrophe to drop on my head.”
“It’s all right,” Moon said. “Turtle, you can go back to Jade Mountain. You can tell them that we’re safe and where we’ve gone.”
“That’s true!” he said, perking up. “That would be useful of me, wouldn’t it?”
“Probably,” Qibli agreed. “Although you could be useful with us, too. But it’s your choice.”
Turtle shuffled backward. “I’ll tell Tsunami and the others not to worry about you. And I did promise Mother to watch out for Anemone, so I should, uh, I should really do that, you know? But you go catch the bad guys and stop the prophecy, and then I’ll see you all when you get back to school, okay?”
A moment later, the SeaWing had slipped away into the trees, and soon they heard muffled wet wingbeats as he flew away.
“Hmm,” Kinkajou said with a frown. “That was disappointing. How can we be the second coming of the five dragonets of destiny if there’s only four of us?”
“You’re not getting rid of the rest of us that easily,” Qibli said sharply to Winter, as though he knew exactly what Winter was trying to do.
“All right,” Winter growled. “Fine, let’s all go to the rainforest together like a soppy pile of MudWing siblings. I can look for Icicle and you can go dig around in the ashes of the Night Kingdom.”
“And I can save Queen Glory!” Kinkajou said, leaping into the air.
“Besides,” Qibli pointed out, flicking his tail at Winter, “that’ll actually bring you closer to the Ice Kingdom, since then you can use the tunnel that comes out north of Queen Thorn’s stronghold.”
That was true. Winter disliked it intensely when Qibli made clever observations like that, and it happened about forty times a day.
“I know,” he said, looking down his nose at the SandWing. “Obviously I figured that out. That’s the only reason I’m agreeing to this.”
“Oh,” Qibli said with a rakish grin. “I thought perhaps it was because I’m so charming and convincing.”
“You are neither,” Winter said. “In fact, if you don’t shut up at once, I will change my mind.”
Qibli pretended to wrap invisible chains around his snout and lifted his front talons innocently.
“Let’s go,” Moon said, spreading her wings and lifting off. Qibli and Kinkajou leaped after her.
Winter hesitated for a moment, watching the lightning flash in the sky beyond the flying dragons.
Why was he agreeing to this? An IceWing warrior didn’t need help from anyone else, least of all a pack of misguided dragons from other tribes.
Take Qibli: Everyone knew SandWings were nearly as untrustworthy as NightWings, except half as smart and twice as likely to betray you for gold and treasure.
And a RainWing! They weren’t even worth mentioning in the great IceWing sagas that told the history of this world. Lazy and insignificant and weak; there was no benefit to be gained from knowing them or befriending them.
Worst of all, how could he ally himself with a NightWing — even temporarily, even if he went into it knowing not to trust her? To travel with Moon, to spend a single moment longer with her, knowing what he knew now …
(And yet … still feeling something he should not be feeling …)
I should stay as far away from her as I can.
Mother and Father would be more than disappointed in me. If they heard of this, any potential position in the palace would be gone forev
er. I’d land at the bottom of the Seventh Circle and have to choose between the Diamond Trial or being stationed on an arctic island outpost for the rest of my life.
He could see their faces so clearly — that look they got whenever he did something wrong. The look that said, if only we’d lost you instead of Hailstorm. If only you met any of our expectations. If only you were everything an IceWing should be.
“Winter!” Qibli called from above. The others were hovering up there, waiting for him. “Come on!”
This was only temporary, he reminded himself. Get to the rainforest, look for Icicle. Then he could rescue Hailstorm by himself. That’s what a true IceWing prince would do.
He wasn’t really working with Moon and the others. He didn’t have to listen to them, and he certainly wouldn’t ask them for help.
Most of all, he would never, never trust them, especially that lying NightWing.
Shaking rain off his tail with a clatter of spikes, he ascended into the storm, wheeled around in a circle, and took off toward the rainforest without a glance at the other dragons.
Winter was not surprised to discover that the rainforest was horrifying and awful.
For starters, there was something blocking Winter’s view in every direction — giant trees to the left, tangles of vines to the right, a thick canopy of leaves overhead. He could barely see five feet in front of him, never mind the horizon. How could any dragon keep watch in a place like this? How could you ever know if you were being attacked or by how many dragons? It was an indefensible quagmire.
Also a literal quagmire — every time they landed, the mud was nearly enough to make him want to claw off his own scales.
Moreover, the whole place was overwhelming. Too many bright colors (what self-respecting bird would ever need to have red, yellow, blue, and green feathers? Black and white: those were the only feather colors for a dignified bird). Too many strange noises (what kind of animal howled like that? why could he hear a waterfall for what seemed like hours and yet never see it? and WHAT was that INFERNAL NONSTOP BUZZING?). Also, far far FAR too many weird smells.