Wings of fire book four.., p.4
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       Wings of Fire Book Four: The Dark Secret, p.4

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  His tail nearly knocked Starflight off the ledge as he leaped into the sky.

  “Down there?” Starflight called, glancing at the molten cracks in the rocks below them. “Is it safe?” He flapped to catch up to Morrowseer.

  “Of course it isn’t,” Morrowseer snapped. “Several dragons have made the mistake of trying to land down there, only to break the crust and fall right through.” He nodded at a white shape sticking out of the rocks. Starflight peered at it until he realized what it was, and then wished he hadn’t. His stomach twisted as he spotted a few others: dragon skulls, their mouths open in an eternal scream.

  “I wouldn’t suggest a closer look,” Morrowseer said drily. “We’re going over there.” He nodded to the far side of the lava rocks, where Starflight now saw a tangle of gray, ash-covered trees.

  “So.” Starflight cleared his throat. “When Greatness said ‘if it’s your turn to eat this week’ — what did that mean?”

  Morrowseer hissed. “There’s a rotating schedule. All NightWings are allowed to hunt or gather for about five days out of every month. Naturally, I am exempt.”

  “Naturally?” Starflight echoed, although he hadn’t meant for it to sound so much like a question. Only five days a month? No wonder they’re all so thin … they must be running out of food on this island.

  The older dragon frowned down at him. “My role in the tribe’s future makes me indispensable.”

  “Oh,” Starflight said, not daring to ask any more questions.

  As they got closer to the trees, it turned out to be a bigger forest than Starflight had expected, covering about a quarter of the island, from the edge of the lava to the ocean.

  “I see,” he said with relief. “I wondered where you hunted.” Surely there couldn’t be much prey on an active volcano.

  “Here, when we have to,” Morrowseer spat. “For instance, when we can’t get to the rainforest or the Kingdom of Sand.” His forked black tongue hissed in and out.

  Oh. That must be another reason they’re so angry right now — they’ve been using the rainforest to find extra prey, he thought. Like that sloth Glory, Clay, and I found by the river. He’d had trouble getting the stench of that dying sloth out of his nose. For a moment, Starflight thought the memory of it had brought the smell back, until he realized a similar smell of decay was coming from the forest below him.

  “The whole island was like this when we got here,” Morrowseer said.

  “You mean, covered with trees?” Starflight asked. “What happened? The volcano?” Stupid question. Of course it was the volcano. He looked back at the mountain, which must have sent a river of lava this way that covered almost all the trees, turning the island into a mostly barren rockscape.

  Morrowseer didn’t answer him. They circled overhead once and Starflight spotted a few other NightWings prowling through the trees. Morrowseer glowered at them, then flicked his tail at Starflight.

  “Quickly,” he snapped. “Before one of them finds my prey.”

  “Your —” Starflight started curiously, but Morrowseer had already tucked his wings and was arrowing down to a patch of stunted trees not far from the beach.

  The older dragon landed with a thud that sent gray dust billowing around his talons and immediately dropped his nose to the ground. With a horrible snorting noise, he charged across the clearing, taking deep breaths and flicking his tongue rapidly in and out.

  Starflight had never seen hunting like this. Dune had taught them what he could in the caves under the mountain, and sometimes it had involved scent trails — Starflight was always decent at those — but usually it also involved being quiet, waiting to spot your target, and then attacking swiftly, before they even knew you were there.

  But from the noise Morrowseer was making, Starflight thought every animal on the island must know he was coming.

  He followed the large black dragon, thinking about Dune and his hunting lessons. Their SandWing guardian hadn’t been particularly kind to the dragonets, although he’d never been as cruel as Kestrel. But he’d always noticed how hard Starflight studied, and sometimes he gave him special tutorials on scrolls that Starflight found confusing.

  Their other guardian, Webs, had often made an effort to bring back more scrolls for Starflight on his trips outside. They’d both been more cautious with him than the other dragonets — perhaps wary that his NightWing mind reading or prophecy skills might suddenly manifest.

  Something I’m still waiting for, he thought, hunching his wings.

  Morrowseer made a guttural, triumphant noise and swiped a leafless bush out of his way.

  Underneath it was something half dead.

  More than half dead, Starflight thought. Almost all the way dead. It looked like a pile of gray and white feathers as big as a dragon’s head. When the giant NightWing hooked one claw in it to drag it out, it let out an awful pathetic squawk.

  “What is it?” Starflight asked, trying to remember a bird like this from his scrolls. His curiosity made him forget about being too afraid to talk. “It’s bigger than any seagull I’ve seen.”

  “A giant albatross,” Morrowseer said, flipping it over. “I was sure it would be dead by now.” With a shrug, he sliced one claw across the bird’s throat.

  Starflight covered his snout with one of his wings. The toxic smell of the dead bird was almost overwhelming; he wanted to run to the ocean and bury his head in the salt water to make it go away.

  As Morrowseer prodded it a few more times, Starflight spotted a bite on the bird’s neck like the one on the dead sloth in the rainforest. It looked infected and disgusting, crawling with insects.

  “Are you sure that’s safe to eat?” he asked.

  “I’m the one who killed it,” Morrowseer growled. “I’m certainly going to eat it.”

  “But won’t it make you sick?”

  Morrowseer gave him a dark look. “NightWings don’t get sick. Don’t tell me you have a weak stomach in addition to everything else wrong with you.”

  “N-no, I don’t think so,” Starflight said, hoping he wasn’t about to throw up and prove himself wrong. “But look, there’s probably horrible bacteria all through that wound.”

  “Of course there is,” Morrowseer said. “How do you think it died? My bite infected it. That’s —” He paused, frowning at Starflight. “Isn’t this how you hunt, too?”

  Starflight glanced down at the horrible-smelling bird. He had a feeling he shouldn’t admit that so far Clay had done most of the hunting since they left the mountain. But he also didn’t want to admit that he didn’t understand this at all.

  Use your brain, he told himself. You can figure this out.

  “You bite your prey,” he said slowly. “And then you wait for it to die. And then you find it and eat it — once it’s already dead and rotting. But it doesn’t make you sick.” He squinted at Morrowseer’s teeth. “There’s something in your mouth that kills them, even if the bite itself wasn’t fatal. Is it venom?”

  Morrowseer shook his head. “Some NightWings think so, but none of our scientists have been able to find any when they examine our tribe’s corpses. Nor have we had any success replicating RainWing venom shooting.” He scowled at the bird and abruptly ripped off one if its wings. “You may have this,” he said ungenerously, tossing it at Starflight.

  Starflight jumped back to avoid catching it, and the wing splatted to the ground in front of him. Several wriggly things crawled out of it and he closed his eyes quickly.

  “Um,” he said. “No, thank you.”

  Morrowseer already had his teeth buried in the underbelly of the albatross. He tore off a mouthful and chewed for a moment, staring narrowly at Starflight.

  “What do you think you’re going to eat?” he barked. “This is the NightWing way.”

  “I’ll catch something else,” Starflight said. He glanced around. “A turtle or a lizard or something.”

  “I’m starting to see why you’re so useless,” Morrowseer hissed. “No one’s ev
er taught you to be a NightWing. We assumed you’d be born superior like the rest of us, but perhaps you’re defective. Well, we don’t have time for delicate sensibilities and a lengthy turtle hunt. Eat the wing or starve.”

  Starflight was too intrigued by this strange biological phenomenon to register that he’d just been called defective as well as useless.

  “Listen, it might not make you sick, but I think it would make me sick,” Starflight said. He wished he could write all this down. Were there any scrolls about NightWing bites and what they did to their prey? Maybe he could study the tribe and write the first one. “I’m not used to eating infected carrion. Scientifically I would assume it’s something you have to adjust to over time, as your dragonets will have done, growing up with a diet like this. But I won’t have the correct antibodies to keep me safe. It’s not worth the risk.”

  The enormous black dragon had paused midbite and was staring at Starflight with his mouth open.

  “Well,” he said after a long moment, “that answers that question.”

  “What question?” Starflight asked.

  Morrowseer picked at his teeth with one claw and lashed his tail.

  “Now I know who your father is.”

  The wind off the ocean seized the tree branches and rattled them fiercely.

  Starflight dug his talons into the ground.

  It wasn’t that he’d forgotten to wonder who his parents were — it was more that he was terrified to hear the answer. A father like Morrowseer or Vengeance, or a mother like Greatness or Fierceteeth … perhaps it would be better never to find out, rather than have his dreams meet the inevitably awful reality.

  But suddenly, the idea that a real dragon, somewhere on this island, was connected to him and might care about him was almost too much to bear.

  It’s what Sunny and I always talked about — finding our parents.

  “My father,” he whispered. “Didn’t you know who he was before?”

  “There were a few possibilities,” Morrowseer said grimly. “But only one other dragon I know talks like you.”

  He talks like me.

  “Well, this is guaranteed to make him even more insufferable,” Morrowseer muttered, shredding the other albatross wing and stuffing scraps of meat in his mouth. “He’s been claiming it was his egg for the last six years.”

  “Can I meet him?” Starflight asked.

  “Oh, there’s no getting out of that.” Morrowseer’s tail twitched. “I’m surprised he didn’t track you down the moment you were dragged in. Must be in the middle of another big experiment. Nose in his scrolls … probably hasn’t even noticed that we’re about to go to war.”

  He wants to meet me. He’ll be looking for me.

  “What about my mother?” Starflight asked. “Could — could I meet her?”

  “No,” Morrowseer said, plucking a feather off his tongue. “Dead. Died a few years ago.”

  “Oh.” Starflight didn’t understand the wave of sadness that seemed to punch him in the chest. He hadn’t known her. She’d agreed to give up her egg for the prophecy, so she couldn’t have been very attached to him. She was probably as bad as Coral, or Clay’s mother.

  Still.

  “How did she die?” Starflight tried not to look at the mess Morrowseer was making of the albatross. Dune and Kestrel had always insisted on strict table manners and cleanliness, since they were all trapped under the mountain together, in just a few caves with nowhere to escape to if someone ate their prey in a loud, annoying way.

  “She got herself involved in a battle — tried to help a SeaWing who’d been attacked by two SkyWings.” Morrowseer grunted. “Idiot. So obviously you didn’t get that brain from her.” He narrowed his eyes at Starflight and waved one of the bird bones at him. “Enough. I have questions for you.”

  “I really don’t know anything,” Starflight said in a hurry.

  “How dangerous is that RainWing?” Morrowseer asked, ignoring him. “Our studies indicate that most RainWings care only about themselves and prefer everything to be easy. Accurate?”

  Starflight nodded. He really desperately didn’t want to betray Glory in any way. But he couldn’t think of a way to avoid Morrowseer’s questions or lie to him when Morrowseer was sure to read the truth in his mind.

  To his surprise, Morrowseer’s shoulders relaxed. “That’s what I thought,” he said. “So perhaps they won’t do anything. Perhaps they’ll roll over and go back to sleep.”

  Starflight realized that Morrowseer had misunderstood him — he’d only meant that laziness was true of most RainWings, but the NightWing had heard that it was true of Glory as well.

  “Maybe,” he said noncommittally. He tried not to think about how Glory would never let this go — how she would fight tooth and claw to rescue the RainWing prisoners. It had been strange seeing her like that, as if she’d borrowed Tsunami’s ferocity for a day. For years Glory had acted as though she didn’t care about anything. But apparently imprisoning and torturing members of her tribe was one way to get her attention.

  He remembered what the council had said. “What plan was the council talking about?” he asked. “What is it we don’t want the RainWings to know?”

  He stumbled over the words, trying to say “we” as if he could be part of this tribe. But he wanted Morrowseer to feel as if Starflight was on his side, that he could be trusted. It was a trick he’d seen Sunny use a few times when Glory and Tsunami were fighting — “Why are we mad at Tsunami today?” “Now what has Glory done to us?” — and it often worked.

  Not this time, though.

  “The less you know, the better,” Morrowseer snapped. “You’ll get in less trouble that way.”

  That wasn’t generally Starflight’s philosophy. He’d say knowing more was always better than knowing less.

  Morrowseer ripped the last chunk of flesh off the bird and spat out several more feathers. “If you’re determined to starve,” he muttered, and devoured the wing he’d thrown to Starflight in a few bites. “Very well,” he grumbled, “let’s go see Mastermind.” He flung the remains of the bird into the bushes and jumped into the sky. “Then I’ll take you to the alternates,” he said over his shoulder.

  “The what?” Starflight asked, but Morrowseer was winging away quickly and didn’t look back.

  Starflight followed him, still thinking about the way NightWings hunted. It explained a few things, including the bad breath on all the dragonets in the dormitory. Oddly, Deathbringer didn’t seem to have the same smell. Starflight wondered if the assassin spent more time on the continent than other NightWings and had learned to prefer live prey over carrion, like most dragons.

  Ahead of them, the NightWing fortress loomed, black against the gray sky. It was massive, built in layers that wrapped halfway around the mountain. But it also looked somehow precarious, as if one rock shelf could shift underneath it and the whole thing might suddenly slide all the way into the ocean.

  In fact … Starflight squinted. It was hard to see at first, black on black in the dark smoky air, but as they got closer he was sure. Part of the fortress had been swallowed by lava, clearly some time ago. A whole corner of the building, at least as big as Queen Scarlet’s gladiator arena, was covered by a hardened mass of black rock bubbles. It looked like a giant dragon had reached out of the mountain and slammed its talons down over the walls.

  Starflight glanced up uneasily at the plume of steam rising from the top of the volcano. Orange-gold fire glowed from inside, and he knew that streams of molten lava ran down at least one face of the mountain, toward the caves where the RainWings were trapped, if Glory’s description was right. Surely another eruption could come anytime, endangering the rest of the fortress.

  That thought made him even more nervous about following Morrowseer back inside, but he didn’t have much choice. The large NightWing ducked into a mouthlike opening on the highest level of the fortress. The tunnels here were lit with hanging chandeliers of torches as well as the niches of coals S
tarflight had seen before. The stone under his talons felt smoother and more polished, as if it was frequently swept or mopped, unlike the lower tunnels.

  Starflight thought of the gold dragon prints in the Sky Palace, the emerald-studded throne in the Kingdom of the Sea, and the colorful flowers that wound all around the RainWing village. There was nothing like that here — nothing to break up the monotony of the stone walls, nothing to showcase the wealth and power of the NightWings.

  Then again, I guess no one ever comes here, he thought. Instead of trying to impress other dragons with opulence, they do it with mystery. He could see how that would make sense. But it would have been nice to see something besides fire and rock in all directions.

  As they turned a corner, Starflight paused and looked back. He thought he’d heard — but maybe he was imagining things. But — it had sounded like claws tip-tapping on the stone behind them.

  He stared along the dark tunnel, and suddenly had a shivery feeling of hope. Maybe it’s Glory, he thought. Maybe she’s here and camouflaged; maybe she’s come to rescue me. He couldn’t imagine how she would have gotten past the NightWing guards who must be posted around the hole. In fact, if he were in charge, he’d have stuck a NightWing in the tunnel at all times, just to be sure no one could invisibly squeeze by. But maybe the NightWings weren’t that smart.

  There it was again. Tap tap tap. Definitely talons, although whoever it was wasn’t doing a terrific job of being stealthy. Glory is much better at sneaking than that. Maybe Clay?

  It was awful how much his chest hurt with hope. If only it were Clay! If only that big brown head would poke around the bend, see him, and grin. Starflight promised the universe that he would never, ever make fun of Clay again, if only the MudWing would suddenly be here, rescuing him.

  “Keep up!” Morrowseer growled from up ahead.

  Starflight realized that he was really being an idiot. If someone were trying to sneak up behind them to rescue him, it wouldn’t much help if Starflight stood there staring at them. He started to turn to follow Morrowseer — but just then a head did poke around the last corner.

 
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