Wings of fire book four.., p.16
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       Wings of Fire Book Four: The Dark Secret, p.16

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Mastermind took a deep breath as they stepped into the library.

  “There’s something about the smell of scrolls that always calms me,” he said, waving one talon at the walls.

  “Me too,” Starflight admitted reluctantly. He didn’t want to believe he had anything in common with his father.

  It frightened him to think of how he might have turned out if he’d been raised on the NightWing island. Would Mastermind have taken him under his wing? Would Starflight be helping him torture RainWings without any guilt or remorse? Would he be inventing new horrible experiments to try on them, never thinking about how they were real dragons he was harming?

  He’d be eating rotting animals and studying with the other NightWings and arguing with Fierceteeth, and he’d believe, like the rest of them did, that he was superior to all other dragons in the world.

  Except that Starflight had no powers, so he’d have been an outcast eventually, even if he had grown up here. He never would have belonged.

  Not that he wanted to … but he didn’t want to be useless either.

  “Let’s see,” Mastermind said, studying the large catalog scroll on the main table. Each end of the scroll was rolled around a spindle with a handle that could be turned to navigate quickly through the entire thing. Mastermind spun the scroll rapidly through to the M’s and paused on Medicinal Records.

  “Hmm.” He tapped his claws on the list, then turned to the niches in the wall. “Help me brainstorm, son. The queen is very angry about what’s happened to the SkyWing dragonet. I’m afraid he’ll be dead by morning if we don’t find some way to combat the SandWing poison. Which is apparently my responsibility, for some reason, as if I’m not already swamped trying to construct venom-proof helmets for the entire NightWing tribe in two days, using only my regretfully flawed prototype, which the queen says will simply have to do for now.” He paused for a breath, pulling scrolls out and tucking them under one wing.

  “Did you say two days?” Starflight echoed, trying to sound casual.

  “In case the council votes to attack,” Mastermind answered with a snort. “I tried to tell them that my research is still incomplete and I cannot guarantee that any operation will go smoothly.”

  I’m pretty sure I can guarantee that it won’t, Starflight thought, remembering the look on Glory’s face.

  Mastermind flicked his tail. “So if you have any ideas, let’s hear them. The problem is that naturally I’ve never studied SandWing venom — orders were to do nothing to antagonize our ally — but if it’s anything like RainWing venom, there is nothing that counteracts its effects.”

  Starflight blinked with surprise. His father hadn’t figured out that the antidote to a RainWing’s venom was venom from a blood relative?

  It was kind of impressive that none of the RainWing prisoners had revealed that information. Perhaps they were a little tougher and smarter than Starflight had given them credit for.

  It was also interesting that the NightWings seemed to have so much knowledge — this entire library full of scrolls — and yet they didn’t know something as essential as how to cure someone who’d been stabbed by a SandWing. Sunny had been able to get that information out of Blaze in a matter of minutes.

  Perhaps that’s one downside to staying isolated, Starflight thought. They keep themselves separate to seem more powerful, and yet they’re cut off from so much potential knowledge. If they didn’t feel superior to all other dragons, maybe they’d be better at listening to them, and maybe they’d learn something new.

  Mastermind had his nose in a scroll and was muttering grimly. “Unlikely. Tried that on RainWing venom and it didn’t work. None of that nearby. Doubtful.”

  Imagine how much we could know if the NightWings studied the right things, like the medicinal properties of all the rainforest plants, instead of torturing dragons and obsessing over their secret plan.

  Starflight realized that the section they were standing in was labeled for nightwing eyes only. He pulled out one of the scrolls at random, curious.

  It turned out to be a treatise by two authors about the plan to take over the rainforest. One author argued in favor of killing all the RainWings right away, while the other author suggested that enslaving them would be more useful in the long term.

  Feeling ill, Starflight shoved the scroll back into its slot with so much force that it wrinkled and nearly ripped in half.

  His father looked up at him. “Well? Any thoughts?” He barreled on without waiting for a response. “We may have to contact Blister, although I fear she’ll want to trade information this valuable for something of equal worth to her — like the location of our island.” Mastermind scratched his snout with a worried frown. “Personally, I’m not sure it’s advisable to give her any power over us.”

  “Definitely not,” Starflight said. “I don’t trust her.”

  Mastermind nodded. “Well, alliances aren’t always about trust, I’m afraid.” He picked up another scroll and unrolled it.

  Starflight shifted uncomfortably, flexing his claws. He knew the antidote to SandWing venom. But should he share it with Mastermind? On the one talon, it seemed dangerous to hand the NightWings any more secrets than they already had. He could easily imagine them abusing that information — by attacking SandWings, for instance, with no more fear of what their venom might do. Or they might take all the cacti in the desert and hoard it for themselves so only NightWings would have the ability to heal from a SandWing attack.

  Or, from what he’d seen of NightWings so far, they’d probably come up with something even more horrible that Starflight would never be able to imagine on his own.

  But on the other talon, Flame was dying. Without the cactus remedy, there was no hope for him. If Starflight told Mastermind, there might still be time for someone to fly to the mainland and get what was needed to save the SkyWing.

  Wasn’t that the most important thing? Starflight couldn’t let him die. His friends would choose to save Flame no matter the consequences — wouldn’t they?

  Sunny would. Clay would. Glory … I’m not sure. She might say to look at the bigger picture instead.

  And Tsunami would say that this is classic Starflight — dithering indecisively instead of doing something.

  So, fine. If I can’t make my own decision, then do what Sunny would do.

  Starflight opened his mouth to tell Mastermind about the cure, but before he could, three NightWings encased in armor came rushing into the library.

  “Mastermind!” one of them shouted. “You’re needed in the council chamber immediately.”

  Starflight’s father sprang to his feet and started reshelving the scrolls with fast, neat movements, carefully checking their marks to make sure they went into the right niches. “Why?” he asked the guard at the same time. “What’s happened?”

  “The extraction was a failure,” said one of the other NightWings. “They tried to jump through and snatch her while she was watching the tunnel, but there must have been about forty other dragons hidden nearby, like they were guarding her or something. You should see what they did to the three we sent through.”

  “You say ‘they,’” said the third soldier, “but we all know most of the damage was done by the SeaWing herself.”

  Starflight tried to contain the joy bursting under his scales; he hoped none of these dragons could sense it in his mind. They had to be talking about Tsunami. She was safe, at least for now. His warning had helped.

  The first guard shook his head. “I hope Her Majesty never sends me after that dragonet. I’d rather carve out my eyes than try to grab her.”

  “I heard she nearly bit Wisdom’s ear off,” said the second.

  “The healers are there already, but the queen wants you, too,” the third said to Mastermind. “Hurry up.”

  Mastermind shelved the last scroll and hurried after the guards. No one had told Starflight not to follow them, so he did, hoping he’d learn something before anyone noticed he was there.

>   The council chamber echoed with the roars of angry dragons. Slumped by the entrance were three dragons who certainly looked as if they’d run into the sharper side of Tsunami. Claw marks were slashed along their wings, their tails looked bitten and dented, and all of their snouts were bleeding. Two other NightWings were dabbing at their wounds with bandages, ointment, and disgusted expressions.

  “The longer we delay, the stronger they get!” shouted one of the council members. “They could attack at any moment!”

  “We should block off the tunnel so they can’t come through,” cried another. “It’s the only way to be safe.”

  “Safe for a few days, perhaps,” Greatness interjected from her spot by the hidden queen. “But what about the plan? What about the future of this tribe? We need that tunnel.”

  “What we should do is attack right now,” bellowed one of the old dragons on the ceiling.

  “Without the SandWings?” Morrowseer’s voice interjected. Starflight realized that the giant NightWing was perched not far from Greatness, but he didn’t look in Starflight’s direction. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed him yet. Starflight ducked behind Mastermind and the three guards, watching through the gaps between their wings.

  “Our plan is proceeding as it’s supposed to,” Morrowseer insisted. “We’ve chosen our ally and we have — well, we have most of the dragonets of the prophecy. But we need time to get them ready and marshal our forces for the attack. The plan was supposed to give us two more years.…”

  “Look at those soldiers!” another NightWing shouted, gesturing at the wounded dragons by the door. “We don’t have two years — we don’t have two days. Your dragonets are out of control. They’re making even the RainWings dangerous, and they’re threatening the whole plan. We need to go in now, take out the RainWings, and contain the dragonets before they do any more damage.”

  “We’re not ready,” growled a dragon with a missing tooth. “Mastermind said we still don’t know enough about the RainWings.”

  “We know how to kill them! That’s all we need to know!”

  “But where are our extra weapons? Where is our specially designed venom-proof armor? Where are our helmets? What has Mastermind been doing for the last three days?”

  “It takes a bit more than three days to make four hundred helmets,” Mastermind called from the doorway, bristling.

  Suddenly Greatness rose to her full height and spread her wings. Silence fell almost instantly around the whole chamber. Every dragon turned to face the screen, watching intently as she leaned in to listen to the queen’s instructions. Starflight imagined the creaky rasp of Battlewinner’s voice echoing through the hidden room.

  Finally Greatness straightened up and fixed the cavern full of dragons with a black-eyed glare.

  “Queen Battlewinner has made her decision,” she said. “We cannot delay any longer.” She looked around as if daring anyone to argue back, but no one did. “We must go through under cover of darkness, kill all the RainWings, and take the rainforest as planned.”

  Not a sound disturbed the terrifying stillness of the cavern. The NightWings were frozen, listening.

  Greatness took a deep breath.

  “Tonight at midnight … we attack.”

  Starflight raced through the empty halls. All the NightWings in the fortress seemed to be clustered around the council chamber, trying to hear what was going on. Once he’d fought his way out through the crowd, the passages were clear all the way back to the dormitory.

  I can warn them. For once I can really help — I just have to get through to my friends.

  Fatespeaker was still asleep, her wings tented over her, her side rising and falling with deep breaths. No one else was in the dormitory; Starflight had seen most of the NightWing dragonets in the crowd outside the council chamber.

  He bolted over to his bed and reached into the hole where he’d hidden the dreamvisitor.

  Even in the middle of the day, someone will be asleep. Maybe Kinkajou again. Another RainWing, if I have to. Maybe Glory will be having her sun time. I can get a message through to someone. I have to, or they’ll all be killed tonight.

  His claws closed on empty space.

  Starflight’s chest constricted, and he crouched, scrabbling through all the holes around his bed. He flung the blanket aside and searched from one end of the hollow to the other. He checked the beds on either side, his heart pounding faster and faster.

  But there was no doubt.

  The dreamvisitor was gone.

  “No,” he whispered, scratching at the hiding spot again. How could it be gone? Someone must have seen him — someone had lifted the blanket last night and realized what he had in his talons. Someone had watched from the shadows and taken it while he was away.

  But who? Could it be Morrowseer? Surely the large dragon would have punished Starflight severely if he’d caught him with the dreamvisitor … but maybe the punishment just hadn’t landed yet.

  More important, what do I do now?

  “Starflight?” He whirled around and realized that Fatespeaker was awake, and right behind him, watching with a confused expression. She hopped up on the nearest bed and peered into his face. “Why are you flapping around like a scavenger with its head bitten off?”

  “I lost something,” Starflight said. “I mean, I left it right here, but it’s gone, and I really, really need it. Did you see anyone over here today?”

  She shook her head. “Why, what is it?”

  “It’s —” He hesitated. How much should he tell her? She seemed like the only dragon he could trust on this whole island, and he needed help. But would she be willing to betray her tribe?

  “Do you want to help the RainWings?” he asked.

  “The sad dragons,” she said, blinking. “Of course I do.”

  “Not just the prisoners here,” he said. “The whole tribe is in danger. The NightWings are planning to invade the rainforest through that tunnel I told you about. They’re going to kill all the RainWings — and they’re doing it tonight.”

  Fatespeaker’s eyes widened. “Why?” she cried.

  “To steal the territory for their own,” he said. “That’s the thing, Fatespeaker. If you help me help the RainWings, it means stopping the NightWing plan. It means leaving our own tribe stuck on this island. It’s hard — I can see how miserable they are here. But I can’t let them do this to the RainWings.”

  “Me neither,” Fatespeaker said firmly. “Tell me what I can do.”

  “Well,” Starflight said, “I have no idea.”

  She smacked him with one of her wings. “You can’t get me all riled up and tell me there’s no plan! We’re going to warn the RainWings, right?”

  He turned back to his bed. “That’s what I was trying to do, but the dreamvisitor is missing, and —” He turned back around and found her halfway to the door. “Wait. Fatespeaker!” He leaped after her, caught her tail, and dragged her back toward him. “Where are you going?”

  She looked at him as if he were crazy. “To warn the RainWings. Like we just decided.”

  “You mean — go to the rainforest?” he said. His heart was hammering and his legs felt as though they could barely hold him up, but something in his head was also shouting YES YES THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO! GO DO IT!

  He started pacing. “We can’t fly there — it’ll take too long. We have to go through the tunnel, but that’s impossible. There will be a million dragons guarding it. I’m not Clay or Tsunami; I can’t even fight one dragonet, let alone a whole squadron of full-grown NightWings.”

  “But we have to try,” Fatespeaker said. “So let’s do it.” She pressed her front talons to her head and smiled. “My vision says we shall succeed! Let’s charge the tunnel and see how far we get!”

  Starflight winced. “Not to argue with your visions, but I can tell you exactly how far we’ll get: into the cell next to Deathbringer’s if we’re lucky, or tossed into the volcano if we’re not.”

  She dropped her arms and looke
d thoughtful for a minute. “So — what if I distract the guards and you sneak through? I have a vision that says that will totally work!”

  He shook his head. “That’s how Deathbringer got Clay here; I doubt they’ll fall for that again. We have to do this the smart way. Maybe there’s a way to trick them. Who would be allowed through the tunnel?” He tapped his claws on the floor. “The soldiers who tried to grab Tsunami were allowed through. Perhaps we could say the queen sent us to kidnap Sunny.”

  Fatespeaker looked down at herself dubiously.

  “Right, two dragonets … they won’t believe that at all.” Starflight picked up a scroll from Mindreader’s bed and turned it nervously between his talons. “So who else, or why else …”

  It was like a thunderbolt hitting him.

  “Oooo, you have an idea,” Fatespeaker said.

  “I do,” Starflight said. “It’s worth a try — but we need one more dragon to make it work.”

  In her nighttime wanderings, Fatespeaker had found the healers’ hall, and she was able to lead the way back there without hesitation.

  Starflight glanced in first. As he’d hoped, the healers were still in the council chamber with the soldiers who’d fought Tsunami. The large room was mostly deserted; a few dragons slept restlessly on the narrow stone beds, most of them with lava-related injuries, from the looks of it. Two of the NightWings bore recent RainWing venom scars, and he realized those must have been the ones Glory attacked during her escape. They smelled slightly of poppies and anise, and he guessed they were in some kind of medicine-induced stupor.

  A fire blazed in a rough fireplace in the center of the wall, and in the bed closest to it was Flame, fast asleep.

  There was a strip of cloth tied around his head, but now Starflight could see a little more of what Viper had accidentally done to the SkyWing. A vicious slash ran from one corner of his mouth sideways and up across his face, straight through the opposite eye. It oozed blood and something darker.

  “Oh, Flame,” Fatespeaker whispered, her voice breaking.

  “It’s not as bad as I thought,” Starflight whispered to her, trying to be reassuring. “Viper only hit one of his eyes — that means, hopefully, he’ll still be able to see out of the other one, so he won’t be completely blind.”

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