Wings of fire book four.., p.11
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       Wings of Fire Book Four: The Dark Secret, p.11

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  Flame let out a small snort of fire and drew himself up as tall as he could get. “It is us,” he said. “From the prophecy.”

  “The dragonets of destiny,” said one soldier in an awestruck voice.

  “Wow, dragons actually call us that?” Viper said. “Lame. I hereby forbid anyone to use that phrase again.”

  “Is that a roasted seagull?” Ochre asked, shoving his way forward and pointing at a half-eaten carcass on one of the tables. “Is anyone going to finish that?” Without waiting for an answer, he snatched the bird and sank his teeth into it.

  Behind Starflight, Squid let out a small whimper.

  A few of the SkyWings exchanged glances, looking a little more skeptical than they had a moment ago. Starflight could feel panic rising in his chest. He had to speak up; he had to be convincing. But his jaw felt like it was welded shut.

  “Why are you here?” asked one of the soldiers. “After you escaped — why come back? To here, of all places?”

  “And what did you do to the SeaWings?” asked another. “No attacks, no raids, no sign of them since we destroyed their Summer Palace. We know plenty of them must have survived, so where’s the counterattack?”

  “Do you have Queen Scarlet?” demanded a dragon leaning on the wall by the fire. “What have you done with her?”

  Flame waved his front talons as if none of these questions were important. “We’re here to tell you you’re supporting the wrong SandWing.” He tilted his head arrogantly. “Burn isn’t going to be queen. Like the prophecy says, she’s going to die. We’ve chosen Blister.”

  The uproar was immediate. Several dragons sprang to their feet, knocking over tables and scattering bones and ashes everywhere.

  “How dare you?” somebody shouted.

  “We’re not taking orders from some puny dragonets!”

  “We’ll never let the SeaWings win!”

  One of the guards shoved Flame in the chest. “Traitor!” The red dragonet stumbled back, stepping on Starflight’s claws.

  “Blister killed my brother!” roared another soldier. “She will never be queen. Her fate is to die beneath my talons!”

  “We’re the dragons from the prophecy!” Viper yelled over the din. “You have to listen to us!”

  “No, you’re not,” said the same authoritative voice Starflight had heard from outside. An orange dragon with a long, scarred neck stepped forward, peering intently at the dragonets. Starflight had a feeling he’d seen this SkyWing before — probably in the queen’s palace.

  The other SkyWings quieted as the soldier reached around Starflight, seized Squid’s ear, and dragged him into the middle of the room. Squid yelped with pain, flung his wings over his head, and sat down, gibbering.

  “That is not the SeaWing we captured before,” said the orange dragon contemptuously. “You saw the marks she left on the guards she fought with. And I do mean she. Also she was blue. This sniveling creature is no dragonet of destiny.” He looked around at the others, his eyes gleaming with suspicion. “I say we kill him. Perhaps we kill them all.”

  “No!” Starflight blurted. “I am the NightWing the queen held prisoner. I swear I am. Remember she had me fight scavengers? And then the other NightWings came and took me?” He held his breath. Please believe me.

  The dragon breathed a plume of smoke at him, then narrowed his eyes at Ochre, who had moved on to gnawing on a large leg bone he’d found on the floor.

  “I suppose that could be the MudWing,” he muttered. “And we never saw the SandWing or the SkyWing.” He studied Flame and Viper. “We assumed the queen was holding them elsewhere in the palace, in case they could be fixed and allowed to rejoin us.” His gaze stopped on Flame. “But perhaps living with the Talons of Peace will ruin any dragon, even from the best of tribes.”

  He jabbed Squid sharply with his tail, and the small green dragon moaned unhappily. “If you’re the NightWing from the palace,” he said to Starflight, “what happened to the SeaWing who was with you before?”

  “She’s —” Starflight felt hopelessly stupid. Why hadn’t Morrowseer guessed this might happen? Did he think this outpost was so remote that no one from the palace would be here? But if he really wanted to replace Tsunami with Squid, he had to know someone would notice and object sooner or later.

  He knew he should act like Squid was the real prophecy dragonet, especially if they all wanted to get out of this cave alive. But he couldn’t bring himself to betray Tsunami, who, if you asked him, in all of Pyrrhia was the dragon most likely to fulfill a prophecy and save the world.

  He braced himself and looked the orange dragon in the eye. “She’s gathering an army.” This was true. No need to mention that it was an army of RainWings. “We’re going to end this war.” He turned to the other SkyWings in the cave. “Soon you’ll be able to go home to your families. Soon you will all be safe. Soon there will be peace.”

  He caught a look of longing on some of their faces. Even the fierce, bad-tempered SkyWing tribe wanted a chance to live peacefully, he was sure of it.

  “Was that a prophecy?” one of the soldiers whispered to another.

  Starflight shook his head. “It was a promise,” he said.

  Viper let out a muffled impatient snort. Starflight knew even his real friends got fed up with the way he sounded like an epic scroll sometimes, but he couldn’t help it — when he thought about prophecies and acting like a hero, that’s how he thought they should all sound.

  “But what about Blister?” asked the orange dragon. “Have you really chosen her? Is she the next SandWing queen?”

  Several of the SkyWings hissed, rattling their wings.

  Flame and Viper and Squid and even Ochre were watching Starflight now. He could guess that they were willing him to say the right thing here — to convince everyone that Blister was the choice of destiny, that she was going to win, and nobody could do anything about it.

  But he remembered Blister’s menacing stillness and the glint of evil in her eyes. He remembered the way she manipulated the SeaWing queen, and he remembered that she’d killed Kestrel and tried to kill Webs, although there wasn’t any good reason why —

  Oh.

  He glanced at the alternate dragonets. If Blister wanted to pick and choose her dragonets of destiny, she needed the original guardians dead so they couldn’t dispute her version of history. His mind was racing. She knew about Glory when we met her — she even said she had NightWing friends. She’s conspiring with them.

  Which meant she was almost certainly part of the plan to assassinate Glory and Tsunami, too.

  He coiled his tail. He couldn’t make her the next queen of the SandWings. If his voice had any power, he couldn’t let her use it.

  “No,” he said, wincing as his voice cracked. He sounded like a one-year-old dragonet pretending to be a queen. “We haven’t chosen anyone yet.”

  “So choose Burn,” said one of the soldiers. Several others nodded.

  “Burn is cruel,” Starflight said. “You know she is. She lives for war. Even if she wins, she won’t stop killing and fighting. She’ll probably turn on all of you and try to take your kingdom next.”

  There was no uproar this time, only shocked silence. They may not have wanted to admit it to themselves, but what he’d said was true. Burn was not a safe ally to have, and she’d be a very dangerous queen of the SandWings.

  “Yeah,” Flame said half-heartedly. “What he said.”

  “So, was that a prophecy?” the same soldier whispered.

  “Let’s take them back to the palace,” said the orange dragon decisively. “We’ll turn them over to Queen Ruby and let her decide. If they know anything about Queen Scarlet’s whereabouts, she’ll get it out of them.” He lashed his tail.

  No, Starflight thought, backing toward the door. Back to the SkyWing palace — that would be even worse than staying with the NightWings. Queen Scarlet had tried to make him fight to the death in her arena. He still had nightmares about scavengers with sharp weapon
s climbing his neck, determined to stab out his eyes. Or about a horde of IceWings descending to destroy him, even though Morrowseer had taken him away before that happened in reality.

  But this wasn’t a dream. The SkyWing claws reaching for him were real, and his legs really were not moving, and he couldn’t remember a single training move that might help him fight back, and he was about to be captured and imprisoned once more.

  And then the door burst open.

  And the NightWings came blazing in.

  That’s who was following us, Starflight thought with a jolt of shock as eight NightWings came through the door, breathing flames in all directions. He saw the tables and the map catch fire, and he saw flames engulf the orange dragon, and then he felt talons seize his tail and he was dragged out the door into the pounding rain outside.

  Flame, Viper, Ochre, and Squid were tossed on top of him, howling.

  By the time Starflight struggled free and looked up, the door of the outpost was ablaze. Inside the cave, fire raged from wall to wall. SkyWings were shrieking in agony. A troop of black dragons blocked the way out, killing any soldier who tried to escape.

  “No!” Starflight yelled. “I promised them! I promised them!” He flung himself at the back of the nearest NightWing, but the dragon shrugged him off easily. “You can’t kill them!”

  Starflight hadn’t wanted to be taken prisoner, but these soldiers were just ordinary dragons, following their queen and doing their jobs. They wanted peace as much as he did. They didn’t deserve to die like this.

  “Morrowseer!” Starflight cried. “Stop them!”

  “You are peculiar,” Morrowseer said from the shadows right beside him. Starflight jumped. “They’re only a handful of SkyWings. Why would you care?”

  “Can’t you spare them?” Starflight said desperately. “Please let them live.”

  “It’s much too late for that,” said Morrowseer.

  Starflight turned to face the flames and realized that this had been Morrowseer’s plan all along. That’s why he’d chosen a remote location with a limited number of dragons. That’s why he didn’t care if the soldiers questioned Squid’s presence — it was all part of the test. But whether the dragonets passed or failed, he’d planned to kill all the SkyWings, no matter what.

  To erase any evidence that we were here — by murdering any witnesses who might wreck our story.

  He stared hopelessly into the fire, certain that he’d be hearing dragons screaming in his dreams for the rest of his life.

  “They nearly killed me!” Squid shouted at Morrowseer. “Just like I said they would! I quit! I don’t want to be in the prophecy anymore! There’s no treasure and it’s boring and stupid and I’m hungry and I hate your island and I want to go home!”

  “Fine,” Morrowseer snarled coldly at him. “I’ve never met a dragonet more pointless than you. Go sniveling back to the Talons of Peace. See if you can find them by yourself. I hope you die on the way.” He shoved Squid forcefully in the chest. “Get out of here! Go!”

  Squid stumbled back, slipping on the wet rocks. It took him a moment before he could talk. “By myself?” he squeaked. “But — but you wouldn’t — my dad is the leader of the Talons — you have to be nice to me. You can’t send me off —”

  “I certainly can,” Morrowseer hissed. Lightning flashed in the sky above him, illuminating the dark mountains looming over them all. “Leave or I will kill you. I never want to see you again.”

  Three moons, Starflight thought. He really hates Squid.

  “Wait,” Fatespeaker said, reaching toward the SeaWing. “Morrowseer, wait. He’s one of us. We can’t lose him.” Squid grabbed her front talons and squeezed, looking desperate.

  “We have another one,” Morrowseer said. “We just have to retrieve her from the rainforest. But she’s clearly made an impression on any dragons who’ve run into her, so we’re stuck with her. Whereas this one is nothing but useless.”

  “It’s not fair,” Squid whined. “It’s not my fault some other SeaWing is better than me.”

  That’s true, Starflight thought, feeling an unexpected stab of pity for the sniveling green dragonet. No one could live up to Tsunami.

  “You can’t do this,” Fatespeaker cried. “Flame! Viper! Tell him!”

  Viper shrugged, and Flame hunched his wings. His eyes were fixed on the cave where his fellow SkyWings were burning.

  “He said he doesn’t want to be in the prophecy anyway,” Ochre said to Fatespeaker.

  “I didn’t mean it,” Squid cried.

  Morrowseer whipped his tail around and smacked Squid hard over the head. “Leave. Now. Be grateful I’m not killing you instead.”

  Whimpering, Squid backed away, spread his wings, and lifted into the storm-soaked sky. Starflight watched him flap slowly toward the Claws of the Clouds Mountains. A SeaWing alone in SkyWing territory — Squid wouldn’t last a day. Starflight’s head pounded and he felt nauseous. Every time he thought he’d seen the worst of Morrowseer and the NightWings, they did something even more horrible.

  Fatespeaker was crying, tears and raindrops together soaking her face. She pressed her talons to her eyes as if she wished she could claw them out.

  Starflight put one of his wings around her and she leaned into his shoulder, shaking.

  “Maybe he’ll be all right,” he whispered. “Sometimes dragons surprise you.”

  “Don’t get comfortable,” Morrowseer said to Starflight. “You are running out of chances to show me you can obey orders.”

  Starflight wound his tail around Fatespeaker’s, thinking, Why should I have to? Who decided you get to order me around? He realized he didn’t even care if Morrowseer read his mind, and he stared at the big dragon, waiting for a reaction.

  Morrowseer looked away first. “Back to the island,” he ordered. “The others will clean up this mess.” He flicked his tail at the ruined guardhouse, then leaped into the sky.

  Fatespeaker turned toward the mountains, as if she was thinking about going after Squid. Starflight wished he were that kind of dragon. Would he disobey Morrowseer and chase after one of his friends if this had happened to them? He thought he would for Sunny. He would never let her fly away alone into death. He thought perhaps he could be brave for her, if he ever needed to be.

  Not brave enough to escape right now, though, he realized. But maybe they’re coming to rescue me. Maybe I should wait for them anyway.

  Or maybe I’m looking for excuses to do nothing.

  “Come on, before anything worse happens,” he said gently to Fatespeaker. She wiped her eyes and followed him into the rain-soaked sky.

  * * *

  The flight back to the island was even more exhausting than the flight out, and the storm was relentless the entire way. Starflight’s whole body felt numb by the time they touched down in the NightWing fortress. None of the dragonets spoke as they trudged back to the dormitory behind Morrowseer.

  “Training at dawn tomorrow,” Morrowseer said, stopping at the doorway. The room was empty; the other NightWing dragonets were nowhere to be seen. He eyed Starflight and Fatespeaker, then turned to go.

  “So … nothing to eat?” Ochre ventured in a woebegone voice.

  It had now been days since Starflight’s last meal — tiring, energy-sucking days. But he didn’t think he had the strength to eat anything tonight anyway. He just wanted to close his eyes and try to forget the sad, dripping shape of Squid flapping away into the mountains.

  “No,” Morrowseer rumbled. And then he was gone.

  Ochre sighed pitifully. Viper hissed and marched to the sleeping hollow she’d chosen, burying herself immediately in a thick canvas blanket.

  Flame lashed his tail for a moment, studying the room. “Not much better than last night’s dungeon,” he muttered. He and Ochre found spots beside Viper at the far end of the room, and soon the MudWing was snoring. But the SkyWing dragonet sat and stared into the coals, unmoving.

  Starflight was half asleep already, but th
e minute he curled onto his bed, Fatespeaker hopped up beside him.

  “Mmph,” Starflight objected sleepily.

  “I know what we have to do,” she whispered. “We have to talk to the queen.”

  “We?” Starflight asked.

  “You and me. Without Morrowseer. Maybe she has no idea how awful he is. I bet he’s lying about her ordering him to kill one of us. I bet he came up with that himself.”

  Starflight coiled his tail, feeling uneasy. He wondered how involved Queen Battlewinner was in decisions about the dragonets and the prophecy. Had she ordered their trip to the mainland and the deaths of those SkyWings?

  “I bet,” Fatespeaker said fiercely, “that she won’t be too happy with Morrowseer for sending Squid away.”

  “Maybe she trusts him,” Starflight pointed out. “Maybe she lets him do what he wants without direct orders. In which case we could get in really big trouble for going behind his back.”

  “Or maybe she has no idea what he’s up to,” Fatespeaker pointed out. “And maybe if we talk to her, she’ll let us both live, free the RainWings, stop the experiments, and let the prophecy happen however it’s supposed to without Morrowseer ruining everyone’s lives.”

  Starflight tilted his head at her. “That’s a lot of hope piled onto a very slim possibility.”

  “It’s worth a try,” she insisted.

  He thought for a moment. His brain felt sluggish and confused. He needed real food and he needed sleep and he really needed his friends.

  “Maybe we can ask for a private audience tomorrow,” he suggested.

  “No!” Fatespeaker said. “Morrowseer won’t allow it. We have to go find her ourselves.”

  “She doesn’t want to be found,” Starflight pointed out. “Maybe she keeps herself hidden for a reason.” He hadn’t come up with any good theories about that yet.

  “Right, and maybe we need to know what that reason is,” Fatespeaker said.

  She had a point. More knowledge would make them more powerful. If they found out something they could use …

  “All right,” he said with a sigh. “We’ll go look for her.”

 
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