Wings of fire book four.., p.19
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       Wings of Fire Book Four: The Dark Secret, p.19

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  She turned to the dragon standing next to her. It took Starflight a moment to recognize Glory’s brother Jambu; he wasn’t his usual vibrant raspberry color, but a rippling shadowy black that would blend in well with the tunnel walls. He was apparently one of the best shots with a blowgun, and he’d volunteered to be the first one through the hole. Starflight wasn’t sure if that was bravery or just not knowing what he was getting himself into, but right now it amounted to the same thing.

  Jambu hopped up to the hole and slid in; Glory followed immediately behind him, and then Mangrove, Liana, Grandeur, and three other RainWings armed with blowguns.

  According to the plan, Starflight and Fatespeaker were next, so that once the guards were knocked out, they could lead the RainWings to the prison caves and the fortress. He took a deep breath and looked back, hoping to catch Sunny’s eye.

  She was watching him, her scales glowing in the fading sunlight.

  I can do this.

  Starflight clambered into the hole and almost immediately, Fatespeaker followed, nearly stepping on his tail. Neither of them said anything, but he felt a little safer knowing she was at his back.

  It was stifling in the tunnel, and eerily quiet; the RainWings ahead of him were stealthier than he’d have expected. He wasn’t sure how far ahead they were, exactly; even with his excellent night vision, Starflight couldn’t make out the difference between shadows in here. The tunnel tilted down, and he crept along as fast as he dared, keeping his wings carefully folded to hide the silver scales.

  Ahead of him, he heard a quiet zzt, and then another, and then seven more in rapid succession. Sleeping darts fired from blowguns, straight out of the shadows, hopefully knocking out all the guards by the hole before any of them noticed and sounded the alarm.

  Next, Starflight heard a muffled thump as one RainWing after another jumped into the cave, and then he saw the flicker of firelight. A moment later, he climbed out of the tunnel and felt the warm rocks scraping below his scales.

  Nine NightWing guards were lying around the cave, each looking as if he or she had just fallen asleep all of a sudden. Their chests rose and fell peacefully; their spears rested harmlessly on the ground nearby.

  Glory turned to Mangrove and pointed at the spears. She made some kind of signal Starflight didn’t follow, but Mangrove apparently did. He started gathering all the weapons in the cave and passed them to the dragons still coming through the tunnel. They were handed back talon over talon until they were safely stashed in the rainforest, far away from NightWing claws.

  The NightWings are still dangerous. We can’t take away their talons or teeth or fire. But one less weapon in a NightWing’s claws can’t hurt.

  Jambu and Grandeur had already crept ahead; if he strained his ears, Starflight could hear the zzt zzt of the blowguns taking out the guards by the cave entrance.

  How long was this going to work? How many NightWings could they send to sleep before somebody noticed? And once someone sounded the alarm, how soon before RainWings started dying?

  “All clear.” Grandeur’s voice whispered along the tunnel like leaves rustling.

  Glory’s scales had shifted to gray and red and black to match the cave. Starflight couldn’t see her, but he felt her wings lightly brush his. It was his turn to lead the way.

  He glanced back at the hole that led to the rainforest. Tsunami and Clay and Sunny were supposed to stay out of sight during the first wave — if anyone spotted blue or brown or gold scales on this island, they’d know the tunnel had been breached and the NightWings would be on them all immediately. So they were to stay hidden until the stealth campaign turned into a real battle. On the one talon, Starflight was relieved that he didn’t have to worry about Sunny, but on the other, he’d feel a lot better if Clay and Tsunami were leading the charge instead of him.

  But this is the smart way to do it — the only way to do it.

  He padded down the tunnel with Fatespeaker beside him, stepping over the slumbering NightWing guards. He could hear the sound of the ocean waves crashing on the black sand below. Outside, the sky was even more gray and ominous than before, with grim lowering clouds that flickered with lightning, all lit by the red glow from the volcano.

  After the bright warmth of the rainforest, the island air seemed even darker and smokier. As Starflight stepped out onto the cave ledge, he felt the ground tremble beneath his talons, then stop.

  That’s unsettling, he thought.

  “What a nightmare,” Grandeur’s voice whispered behind him.

  “It’s worse than I expected,” said Jambu. “How can anyone live here?”

  “You carry this,” Glory said, handing Starflight one of the guard’s spears. “We might need it, and it’ll look less weird in your claws — if I hold it, it’ll look like it’s just flying around through the air by itself.”

  Starflight nodded, although the weight of the spear felt extremely strange in his talons. It was more likely that he’d accidentally poke his own eye out than that he’d be able to use this to fight. He tried to hold it as far away from himself as possible as he lifted up into the sky.

  “Take us to the prison caves first,” Glory’s voice said from the air beside him. “Once Mangrove and the others are set up to free the prisoners, you and I can head for the fortress.”

  “You?” Starflight said. It was really odd not being able to see her; he felt as if he were arguing with the air. “That’s the most dangerous part. As the queen, shouldn’t you keep yourself safe? You can send someone else for Splendor.” He tilted his wings to soar toward the prison caves and the lava river.

  He could feel air currents shifting around him as several invisible dragons flew alongside. He wasn’t sure how many RainWings were following him, but he hoped none of the NightWings would hear the wingbeats and get suspicious. There were very few NightWings in sight — one or two on the balconies of the fortress plus the guards in the cave entrances below. Starflight guessed that the rest were assembling in preparation for their planned attack tonight.

  “I’m not going to be the kind of queen who sends other dragons into danger that I’m not willing to face myself,” Glory said. “And even if I could send someone for Splendor, I can’t send anyone else to face Battlewinner.”

  Starflight sucked in a surprised breath. “Battlewinner?” he said. “Is that a good idea?”

  “Weren’t you the one who suggested diplomacy?” Glory said, and he could hear amusement in her voice.

  Yes, but that was before I knew anything about the NightWings.

  “Rescuing the prisoners is the top priority,” she went on, “but if I can threaten her somehow — maybe if I tell her I’ll expose her secret — perhaps I can get her to leave us and the rainforest alone from now on.”

  “I doubt it,” Fatespeaker said. “The NightWings really want your rainforest.”

  “Well, too bad,” Glory snapped.

  “Shh,” Starflight said. They were approaching the first prison cave. He dipped his head toward it and felt a whoosh of wind as one of the RainWings dove past him. A moment later, the two guards in the cave entrance both reached for their necks, looking confused, and then, in slow motion, they crumpled into slumbering heaps.

  “We’re lucky the caves line the river,” Starflight said, circling around in the sky. “The guards at each entrance can’t see any of the others get knocked out.”

  He saw the guards in the next cave collapse to the ground, and then the next, and the next. The RainWings were fanning out, following instructions Glory had given them before leaving the rainforest. He saw the shimmer of scales and teeth here and there as the RainWings landed in pairs, shifted color, and darted into the prison caves.

  “You said you saw Orchid in one of these caves,” Glory said to Fatespeaker. “Do you remember which one?”

  Fatespeaker nodded and twisted into a dive, aiming for one of the caves closest to the fortress. As they approached, its two guards looked up. Although all they could see were two N
ightWing dragonets, one of them frowned a little as if he sensed something was amiss. Starflight’s stomach lurched as the guard reached for the gong that would summon the rest of the tribe.

  Then the air beside Starflight’s ear went zzt zzt, and the two guards wobbled and went down.

  “That was close,” Starflight said, but after a moment he realized he really was talking to empty air. Below him, the two guards were dragged aside, and as he landed he heard the thump of talons hurrying to the back of the cave.

  “I want to see this,” Fatespeaker whispered, darting inside. Starflight followed just in time to see Mangrove appear in front of Orchid, his gray and black scales shifting all at once to a joyful pink shot through with worried green.

  Orchid let out a cry of joy that was muffled by the iron muzzle around her jaws. She reached toward Mangrove and he leaped for her, wrapping his wings all the way around her and twining his tail with hers.

  “I’m here,” he said. “I wouldn’t give up; I’d never give up on you.”

  She couldn’t speak, but the rose colors of Orchid’s scales said everything.

  “Let’s get her out of here as fast as we can,” Glory said. “If they’re all chained to the wall like this, we have extra work to do. Starflight, give me the spear.”

  Starflight held the spear out and it was whisked away from him. A Glory-shaped shadow approached Orchid and carefully stuck the points of the spear into the lock on the mouth band.

  “Liana, Grandeur, are you paying attention?” Glory asked.

  “Yes,” two voices said from the air. Starflight jumped. He hadn’t realized the other two RainWings were with them.

  “This is how you undo the locks,” Glory said, twisting the spear. The muzzle fell off with a clank, and Glory set to work on the chains that bound Orchid to the wall.

  “I was afraid you wouldn’t care where I was,” Orchid said to Mangrove. “I thought you’d move on and find someone else.…”

  “Never, never, never,” Mangrove said fiercely.

  “Do you feel the earth shaking?” Orchid asked.

  “I think that’s me,” Mangrove said, holding out his trembling claws. “Like all the happiness inside us is trying to burst out.”

  Actually, I’m pretty sure that was a real earthquake, Starflight thought. He’d felt the tremor in the earth as well, rumbling up through his talons before it stopped.

  “Done,” Glory said, and the spear moved through the air as she handed it to one of the other RainWings. Orchid shook off the loose chains and spread her wings, beaming and glowing like a ball of pink sunshine.

  “Orchid, this is our new queen, Glory,” said Mangrove. “She’s the reason we found you, and she’s the dragon who convinced everyone to come get you.”

  “It was really thanks to Mangrove,” said Glory. “He’s the one who knew you were missing and wouldn’t shut up about it. If we hadn’t brought an army to save you, he’d have come over here and done it himself.”

  “Thank you, Your Majesty,” Orchid said with a half bow.

  “That is too weird,” Starflight whispered to Fatespeaker. “Hearing my friend called ‘Your Majesty.’”

  “I bet watching her lead an invasion is fairly strange, too,” Fatespeaker whispered back.

  “Grandeur, Liana, disguise yourselves as NightWings, take the guards’ spears, and go to the other caves,” Glory ordered. “Show everyone how to free the prisoners. Move as quickly and quietly as you can. Then get everyone back to the tunnel. The most important thing is getting all fourteen prisoners home safe. Mangrove, you and Orchid take a moment to calm your scales down and then you can head back to the rainforest, too.”

  “I should come with you,” Mangrove said. “If you’re going into the fortress, you’ll need backup.”

  “I’ll have it,” Glory said.

  I hope she doesn’t mean me, Starflight thought anxiously.

  “But we went to a lot of trouble to reunite you and Orchid, so go be happy with her for a little while. We’ll let you know if we need you.”

  Mangrove and Orchid both bowed.

  Wings brushed against Starflight’s shoulder and he started back for a moment before he realized it was Glory, heading up the tunnel to the lava river.

  “Come on, Starflight,” she said from the darkness. “Let’s go have a talk with the NightWing queen.”

  The fortress seemed eerily quiet as they flew toward it. The air felt thick with ashy smoke. Starflight’s nose and throat hurt even worse than before, and occasionally he heard Glory and Fatespeaker coughing behind him.

  He rubbed his stinging eyes and stared at the fortress ahead, wondering where an entire NightWing army would assemble. Queen Battlewinner wouldn’t be able to lead it, since she couldn’t leave the lava. Greatness would have to really make some queenly decisions if she was planning to lead their attack.

  Had Starflight’s absence been noticed yet? If not, surely at least Morrowseer would have gone to check on Flame and found him missing. How had he reacted?

  Maybe he’ll think Flame tried to fly home to the continent, Starflight thought. We’d be in luck if Morrowseer tried to follow him. He really did not want to encounter Morrowseer in the halls of the fortress.

  “Please tell me there’s an invisible army with us,” Starflight said.

  “I’m your invisible army,” Glory said cheerfully.

  “I’m serious,” Starflight said. “We shouldn’t go in there alone, just the three of us.”

  “Tell me something,” Glory said. “The dungeons you saw — how do we get them open? Will those spears work on the doors, or do we need keys?”

  Starflight closed his eyes for a moment, picturing the dungeon. “We need keys, I think,” he said.

  “So let’s start with the queen,” Glory said. “We’ll make her tell us where to find the keys.”

  Starflight could not imagine making Battlewinner do anything at all, but then, Glory was a lot more persuasive than he was — and even more so now that she had a queen’s authority. He swerved down toward the entrance closest to the council chamber.

  The three of them padded silently through the hallways. Loud voices rang out from a few of the rooms. Starflight caught snippets of an argument about who would get to wear some shared armor, a monologue about another battle the storyteller had been in, and a conversation about how killing RainWings would have to be easier than killing MudWings.

  He’d forgotten all about the dead MudWings on the rainforest border. Why would the NightWings kill them? he asked himself, and almost immediately a possible answer came to him: to keep the MudWings out of the rainforest. If they believe there’s a deadly monster lurking in there — that it’s not safe to go anywhere near it — they won’t be tempted to conquer the rainforest themselves. Leaving it untouched and ready for the NightWings to move in anytime.

  That explains the howler monkeys, too. He remembered Jambu saying that the monkeys used to make a normal monkey sound, but then suddenly they started screaming like dying dragons instead. I bet my dad is responsible for that. I bet he did something to the monkeys so their screams would scare the MudWings away.

  Everything the NightWings did was part of their grand plan of taking over the rainforest. Starflight sighed and glanced at the map as he led the way into the room with the secret entrance. If only there were somewhere else the NightWings could go … but they’d clearly been all over Pyrrhia, destroying scavenger dens, for whatever reason, and if there had been somewhere else for them to live, surely they would have found it.

  “Someone’s coming,” Glory whispered a heartbeat before Starflight heard claws tapping on stone and smelled the rank odor of NightWing breath.

  Fatespeaker shot across the room to the map, but before she could lift the corner and duck underneath, scales slithered in the doorway and they all whirled to see Greatness staring at them.

  The ground rumbled under their feet.

  “What are you doing in here?” the NightWing princess asked. Her
glittering diamond necklace was askew, as if she’d slept in it and had forgotten it was on. Her eyes looked exhausted, red and raw from the smoke in the air. “Why aren’t you with the others?”

  “We … got lost?” Starflight tried.

  Greatness squinted at them. “Oh, you’re the two little prophecy dragonets. Morrowseer was looking for you in quite a towering rage earlier. Listen, like I told him, the prophecy is important, but it’s even more important that we win this battle tonight. So the whole tribe is going, no exceptions. Everyone else is in the great hall — if you follow this tunnel down and take the fourth left, you’ll be halfway there and someone can guide you.”

  “What about you?” Fatespeaker asked. “Why aren’t you there?”

  “I’m going to speak with the queen first,” Greatness said. Her eyes darted involuntarily to the map.

  “Actually,” Glory’s voice said from the air, “we’re all going to speak with the queen.” Greatness stiffened and pulled in her wings; Starflight saw a flash of scales changing color as Glory’s claws rested on the artery in the NightWing’s throat.

  “Don’t call for help,” Glory said. “I’m not an ordinary RainWing. My venom is aimed at your eyes right now and I am not afraid to use it.”

  “The dangerous one,” Greatness whispered.

  “That’s right,” Glory said. “Now we’re all going up the hidden tunnel to the queen, and you’re leading the way, and you’re going to keep in mind that my fangs are right behind you.”

  Greatness blinked and nodded several times, looking queasy. She hurried to the map and ducked into the tunnel. The rustle of wings indicated that Glory had followed her; Fatespeaker and Starflight were right behind them.

  The rocky floor felt hot under Starflight’s talons, hotter than it had before. Another rumble shook the mountain as they pressed forward.

  “Um,” Starflight said as a horrifying thought struck him. “There’s no chance this volcano is about to erupt, is there?”

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