Wings of fire book four.., p.20
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       Wings of Fire Book Four: The Dark Secret, p.20

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Up ahead in the shadows, the bulky figure of Greatness paused and looked back. “It shouldn’t,” she said. “Our scientists predicted that we have at least two more years before another major eruption.”

  “How can they be sure?” Fatespeaker asked. “Did someone have a vision?”

  Greatness turned around and kept walking without answering.

  Starflight braced himself against another tremble in the ground. “I don’t like the feeling in the air,” he whispered to Fatespeaker. “I don’t know much about volcanoes … but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad sign when they start doing this.”

  “Poor NightWings,” Fatespeaker said softly.

  “Hmm,” said Starflight. “More like, poor us, if we don’t get out of here soon.”

  They abruptly came around the bend into the queen’s cave. Queen Battlewinner was sitting erect in her boiling lava cauldron, glaring at them with fierce eyes that reflected the red light around them.

  Starflight inhaled sharply as he spotted another dragon in the back corner of the cave: his father, Mastermind. The scientist was fussing over several hunks of metal on the floor, and after a moment, Starflight remembered seeing them in the lab. All put together, they looked like a suit of armor that would fit over an entire dragon, with room to pour something in between the dragon’s scales and the metal.

  Lava, he realized. This is how Battlewinner plans to get to the rainforest. Mastermind has been building her a portable lava device. His brain immediately started taking apart the science of the idea. But how would it stay hot, away from the volcano? Can any metal really contain it? He also realized, tangentially, that his father had lied about not seeing the queen — he must be one of the few dragons who knew her secret, and was working to help her keep it.

  Mastermind looked up as they came in and locked eyes with Starflight. His expression was startled, but in a distracted way, as if he was dealing with something far more important, and after a moment he bent back to the armor without saying anything to his son.

  “Fool,” Battlewinner snarled at Greatness.

  Greatness hung her head, looking less like a queen than ever.

  “Preparations?” the NightWing queen hissed.

  “Everyone is gathering,” Greatness said. “But, Mother, I can’t lead them into battle by myself. Can’t we postpone the attack? Mastermind says your armor isn’t ready …”

  “It will be,” Battlewinner hissed. “Tonight.”

  “I don’t think so,” Mastermind said anxiously from behind her. He dropped a curved tailplate with a loud clatter and winced. “Your Majesty, I don’t understand why you have to go. I need more time to make sure this will work for you.”

  “Must do this right,” Battlewinner snarled. “Can’t trust you to invade properly.” She cast a scornful look at Greatness.

  “You shouldn’t,” Greatness said, fingering the diamonds around her neck. “I don’t know what you want me to do. So I was coming to ask you and then —”

  “And then she ran into me,” Glory said.

  Mastermind let out a yelp of fright as Glory’s scales shimmered into sight, shifting from the camouflage of the shadows to a bold royal blue shot through with veins of gold. She looked regal and out of place in this smoky red and black cave. “Well,” she added, “more accurately, she ran into my claws.” She flexed her talons and narrowed her eyes at Queen Battlewinner.

  “And you are?” growled the queen.

  “Queen Glory of the RainWings. I have come to give you one chance to end this war before we destroy you.”

  The dragon in the lava made an involuntary scoffing sound that clearly hurt her throat. She paused for a long moment, clutching her neck, then dipped her whole body under the lava and emerged again.

  “Funny,” she said finally.

  “Not very,” Glory said. “If you think an IceWing attack is hard to live with, wait until you experience a little RainWing venom. I’m afraid your lava bath won’t be able to help you with that.”

  Smoke hissed softly through Battlewinner’s nostrils as she stared at Glory.

  “Oh, three moons,” Greatness said anxiously, wringing her talons. “What do you want?”

  “We’re taking our prisoners back,” Glory said. “You will never set foot in the rainforest again. You will leave the RainWings alone forever. We’ll destroy the tunnel between our kingdoms, you’ll call off the invasion, and we’ll never even sniff another NightWing near our village for the next twelve generations.”

  Starflight cleared his throat a few times significantly and Glory glanced at him. “Also,” she added, “you will stop meddling with the prophecy dragonets — both the real ones and the fake ones. You’ll let them save the world and stop the war however they decide to.”

  “Never,” hissed Queen Battlewinner. “Never.”

  “Never what?” Glory said. “Because you don’t have a lot of options here.”

  “I see one,” Battlewinner croaked. “You die.”

  Glory bared her teeth at the NightWing queen, but Greatness interrupted, her voice pleading.

  “Please listen. You’re dooming us to a horrible end,” she cried. “The volcano is not only a future threat — it’s killing us now. There’s almost no prey left. We’re all starving. Fewer dragonets are born each year. And we’re barely NightWings anymore. Don’t you see? The tribe is dying. We need a new home.”

  “Well, you can’t have ours, you murderous entitled worms,” Glory flared.

  “Why not?” Mastermind asked, sounding genuinely confused.

  “Because a whole tribe already lives there.” Glory’s scales were flashing to red and orange in places — hints of her anger showing through, although she quelled them quickly. “And if you try to hurt my RainWings, I will make you regret it.”

  “Wait,” Starflight said. His brain was suddenly spinning forward — a new idea unfolding across his mind like a scroll rolling open. “Wait — maybe — maybe there’s a way to compromise. Glory, stop and think. There’s lots of space in the rainforest; the RainWings say so all the time. What if we let the NightWings move in and build their own village somewhere in the rainforest — but only if they all swear to accept you as their new queen.”

  There was a shocked pause.

  “WHAT?” Battlewinner roared.

  Glory tilted her head at Starflight, looking skeptical but intrigued.

  “Think about it,” Starflight said. “A new home for the NightWings, safe and peaceful, and all they have to do is give up their cruelty and violence and obey you. You know you’d be as great at being NightWing queen as you are at ruling the RainWings.”

  “Hmm,” Glory said. “There would be something poetic about being the boss of a tribe that’s always called me lazy and useless.”

  “NEVER!” Battlewinner shouted, then had to stop and double over coughing for a long minute.

  Uneasily, Starflight felt the ground shake again, much stronger this time.

  “We’ll never bow to RainWings,” Battlewinner snarled finally.

  “Actually, Mother,” Greatness said nervously, “it sounds like a decent plan to me.”

  Battlewinner spat out a shard of ice that sizzled into steam when it hit the lava. “You never wanted to be queen,” she rasped. “You’re a pathetic heir.”

  “I know I am,” Greatness said. “Being queen is awful.”

  Battlewinner hissed again, loud and long. Starflight realized that he was also hearing something else — a faraway rumbling that seemed to be getting louder and closer.

  “What about our real queen?” Mastermind asked.

  Starflight stared straight into the icy blue depths of Battlewinner’s eyes. “I think she knows she’s not making it to the rainforest. There’s nothing you can build that will work to keep her alive there. She’s going to die here, crushed by the volcano along with the NightWing home, and if she wants her tribe to survive, she needs to hand them over to Queen Glory.”

  Battlewinner’s tail was thrashing ha
rd enough to spill lava over the edges of the cauldron, splattering dangerously close to their talons. “I am their queen. I am,” she spat.

  “Wait, Starflight,” Glory said. “I haven’t agreed to this. How could we ever trust the NightWings in our rainforest? These are the same dragons who’ve been abducting and torturing my tribe. How can we just forgive them? I don’t want them anywhere near us.” She shook her head. “I don’t think it’ll work.”

  Mastermind looked sick at the words “abducting and torturing.” He turned away from Starflight, staring down at the armor in his claws.

  “It might work,” Greatness said desperately. “Give us a chance, please! I promise we can be better.”

  “Shameful,” Battlewinner snarled.

  “It’s not up to you,” Starflight said to the NightWing queen, and realized his voice wasn’t even shaking. He was right, he could feel it, and that helped him get past his fear. “You’re stuck here. We’re negotiating with Greatness now.” He turned to the NightWing princess. “Come on, let’s talk about this somewhere else.”

  “No!” roared Battlewinner. “You can’t do this. I won’t let you.” She gripped the sides of the cauldron with glistening claws, and then, to Starflight’s horror, she heaved herself up and out of the lava. Her back talons crunched down on the edge of the cauldron. Her wings flared open, scattering molten orange droplets across the room. Her thick head swung back and forth, glaring at all of them. She was massive, as big as Morrowseer, and glowing horribly as lava dripped between her scales and claws and slithered off her tail.

  “Mother, stop,” Greatness cried.

  “Your Majesty!” Mastermind shouted. “You can’t come out! Wait — my experiment —” He scrabbled frantically at the armor around him.

  “I will lead my tribe to safety,” the queen hissed. She landed on the rocky ground with a thud, but the aftershocks went on too long to be caused by her. It was an earthquake, a serious one, Starflight realized as bits of the walls began to crumble.

  “We have to get out of here,” he said to Glory.

  Queen Battlewinner took a step toward Glory and Starflight, then stopped, clutching her neck again. She hissed in a frightening, hoarse way and took another step. Her tongue flicked out and in and she started to shake. When she stared around at all of them, Starflight could see the icy blue spreading rapidly over her eyeballs.

  “Mother!” Greatness yelped. “Get back in the lava!” She darted to her mother’s side and tried tugging on Battlewinner’s wing. Mastermind dashed up on the other side and started wrapping bits of metal around the queen’s limbs. But Starflight could tell that even if the armor would work, it was already too late.

  With a bone-rattling shriek, Battlewinner threw off her daughter and Mastermind and surged toward Glory. Glory took a step back, and the NightWing queen collapsed on the floor in front of her. Her limbs twitched violently; her wings spasmed; her tail thrashed back and forth. White frost was starting to march between the scales of her neck, spreading rapidly across her body.

  Lava dripped off Battlewinner, faster and faster as the ice started to win the battle for her body. Greatness pressed herself against the wall, whimpering, as far away from the dying queen as possible. Starflight wanted to look away, but somehow he couldn’t. He felt Fatespeaker bury her face in his shoulder.

  The NightWing queen’s neck froze solid first, then her chest, her ears, her wings, her snout, all the way out to her claws and her tail. Within moments, the dragon’s entire body was encased in jagged whorls of ice. Her eyes were blue pools of rage. Her mouth froze wide open, as if she’d wanted to end her life with a howl of fury, but it was too late; nothing could come out.

  Greatness and Mastermind stared down at the queen, disbelief and horror warring on their faces.

  Then the entire island shook as if a giant dragon had pounded his talons into it, and Starflight felt his stomach twist with terror.

  The volcano was about to erupt.

  “We have to go now,” Starflight said, grabbing Glory and shoving her toward the door. He bundled Fatespeaker ahead of him, too, and they fled down the tunnel.

  “Wait!” He heard Greatness yell as they ran, but when Fatespeaker tried to stop he pushed her forward. There was no time for more diplomatic conversation. Feet thumped behind them; Greatness would have to talk to them somewhere else, such as not in the middle of an exploding volcano.

  The map caught on Starflight’s horns and ripped away from the wall as he threw himself out of the hole at the end. He rolled forward, wrestling the map off his head and bundling it in his talons. Without really thinking about it, he shoved it under one arm and carried it with him as he bolted for the door.

  “Where are the dungeons?” Glory shouted.

  “There’s no time!” Starflight yelled. Couldn’t she feel the volcano shaking? Ash was raining down all around them; cracks were zipping across the fortress walls like lightning.

  “We are not leaving Deathbringer!” Glory grabbed Fatespeaker. “Point the way and I’ll go by myself. Starflight, get out of here. Get everyone off the island.”

  Deathbringer? Starflight opened and closed his mouth. He hadn’t realized that rescuing the NightWing assassin was even on Glory’s agenda, let alone that it was important enough to risk an erupting volcano for.

  But she’s right. He risked everything for us — for her.

  Fatespeaker pointed in the direction of the dungeons and Glory took off without waiting for any more arguments.

  I can’t let her go by herself! Starflight’s heart was trying to pound its way out of his chest. He remembered the NightWing skeletons in the old treasure room; he thought of the lava flow that had consumed the old forest and the skulls sticking out of it. He could feel the heat of the volcano as if it were trying to batter its way through the walls toward him.

  All he wanted to do was fly as fast as he could to the tunnel and escape to the cool safety of the rainforest.

  But Glory didn’t know where she was going, or what to do when she got there.

  He whirled around and found Greatness behind them, wringing her talons again and looking utterly wrecked. “Where are the keys to the dungeon prisons?” he yelled at her.

  “The — the — oh — there’s a set hidden in a coal niche on the dungeon stairs,” she said. “What are we going to do about the volcano? Is this it? The one that kills us all?”

  Yes. “Not necessarily,” Starflight said, trying to sound far less panicked than he felt. “Take Fatespeaker to the great hall and tell all the NightWings our terms. If they’ll swear loyalty to Queen Glory, we’ll consider letting them live in the rainforest. Anyone who agrees, send them through the tunnel as fast as you can. Anyone who doesn’t, tell them to fly for the continent immediately. They need to get far away from here before the eruption — the lava and smoke could reach for miles.”

  “But Glory didn’t say yes,” Fatespeaker pointed out.

  “I’ll talk her into it,” he promised grimly. “Go, quickly.” He wrapped his wings briefly around Fatespeaker, feeling her scales slide against his, and then let go and ran after Glory.

  He found her at the next intersection, looking around in furious indecision.

  “This way,” he called. He ran past her, toward the stairs that led down to the dungeon.

  There was no time to talk, and the rumbling of the volcano was now loud enough to drown out any attempt at conversation anyway. The heat increased as they went down, and the noise grew and the walls seemed to shake even more.

  We’re going to die down here, Starflight thought with absolute certainty.

  He stopped at each niche on the stairs, feeling gingerly around the coals and singeing his talons more than once. Finally, in the last one, he felt something metal and heavy hanging from a hook inside the opening, and when he tugged on it, he found keys resting in his claws.

  In the dungeon, Splendor was awake, shaking like a leaf in the middle of her cell, with her wings over her head.

  “It’s all right,” Starflight called through the bars, trying keys in the lock one after another. “We’re here; we’re rescuing you. You’re going home.”

  Splendor looked up, blinking. Her scales were bright acid-green and her expression was dazed with fear.

  Starflight glanced around and realized that Glory had gone right past them. She was at Deathbringer’s cage, grabbing the bars. As he watched, Deathbringer reached his talons through the bars and wrapped them around hers, and they exchanged a look that said “thank you” and a whole lot more.

  The lock finally turned under his claws and the door swung open. Splendor stumbled toward him.

  “Wait here,” he told her, hurrying to Deathbringer’s door.

  “Why aren’t we leaving?” Splendor wailed.

  Glory grabbed the keys from him and started trying them. It was hard to tell whether her talons were shaking from nerves, too, or whether it just looked that way because the whole mountain was quaking now without stopping.

  “You don’t have to do this,” Deathbringer said, his gaze fixed on Glory.

  “Oh, I don’t?” Glory said without looking up from the keys. “That’ll save me some time; good luck with the volcano, then.”

  Starflight glanced up at the ominous cracks appearing in the ceiling. He spotted a symbol at the top of Deathbringer’s cage — a symbol he’d seen on one of the keys.

  “Try this one,” he said, reaching over and taking the keys from Glory. He stuck the key with the symbol on it in the lock and turned it. The door swung open.

  Deathbringer yanked on his chains as they hurried into the cell. Splendor ran in behind them, flapping her wings in a frantic whirl of green.

  “Something is coming through the walls!” she shrieked. “We’re all going to die!”

  Starflight looked out at the dungeon hallway and saw lava glowing in the cracks of the walls.

  “She’s right,” he said quietly to Glory.

  “You two go ahead,” she said, concentrating on the keys and Deathbringer’s chains. “We’ll be right behind you.”

  “Let’s go, let’s go!” Splendor cried.

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