Wings of fire book four.., p.5
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       Wings of Fire Book Four: The Dark Secret, p.5

           Tui T. Sutherland

  It wasn’t Clay. Or Glory or Tsunami … or Sunny.

  It was just a NightWing dragonet.

  She stared right at him for a startled moment, and then he shrugged and turned away — but at the same time she yelped, “Oh my gosh, it’s you!” and bolted up to him, grabbing his front talons.

  “I had a vision about you,” she declared grandly. He froze in the act of trying to pull his talons away. “Have you had any visions about me?”

  “You did?” Starflight said, blinking. She appeared to be his own age. So if she was having visions, that meant dragonets did develop their powers before they were full-grown. Which meant Starflight should have something by now.

  But he didn’t. Whenever he tried to read minds or see the future, it was like staring into the night sky — empty and cold and meaningless.

  He hadn’t admitted that to Morrowseer yet.

  Speaking of whom — the floor now trembled ominously as the older NightWing came thundering back along the tunnel to them. His eyes nearly popped out of his skull when he saw the new dragonet.

  “FATESPEAKER!” he roared so loud that Starflight thought the volcano might erupt right then. “I told you to stay in your cave with the others!”

  “I know, I heard you,” she said cheerfully. “But I got bored and I wanted to explore and I saw you flying by, so I thought I’d come, too. I can’t believe I’m in the NightWing fortress at last! I’ve had lots of prophetic dreams about it, you know,” she said conspiratorially to Starflight. She still had his front talons pressed between hers. “Although in those it was actually bigger and lighter and smelled way less terrible, plus it had a lot more treasure and seriously less grouchy dragons.” She thought for a moment. “Hmm. Maybe they were just regular dreams.”

  “Fatespeaker,” Morrowseer hissed. “What did I say about keeping your visions to yourself?”

  “You said ‘Shut up about your visions. I’m not remotely interested,’” Fatespeaker answered. “But that doesn’t mean this dragon isn’t interested. Aren’t you interested?” she said to Starflight.

  He was, but he did not think it would be wise to admit that in front of Morrowseer, who had smoke rising from his nostrils. Starflight tried to study the dragonet without obviously staring.

  Fatespeaker’s black scales shimmered with underscales of deep blue and purple. Like Starflight’s wings, hers were scattered with silver scales on the underside, so they looked like part of the night sky. But unlike his, Fatespeaker had several extra silver scales — one at the outside corner of each eye, a band circling one ankle, and a few lone ones sparkling along her tail like starry freckles.

  “Anyway, I just know you’re terribly important,” she said to him, releasing his talons. “And that we have a great destiny together.”

  We do? he thought hopefully. Perhaps he was going to survive the NightWing fortress after all. Am I actually useful in this great destiny? Are my friends there? Am I with Sunny? He wished he could ask her questions without Morrowseer breathing furiously over their heads.

  “Go back to the others,” Morrowseer ordered.

  “Oh, can’t I come with you?” Fatespeaker asked. She gave Morrowseer a pleading look. “I foresee that I’ll be really helpful with whatever you’re about to do! Also that I’ll find it totally interesting!”

  “I — don’t think that counts as foreseeing,” Starflight said. “It sounds more like guessing.”

  Morrowseer growled deep in his throat. “Very well. Keep your mouth shut and don’t get in the way.”

  “As if I would!” Fatespeaker said happily, immediately tripping Starflight with her tail.

  Morrowseer stomped away, muttering. Fatespeaker gave Starflight an enormous smile that reminded him of Sunny. He wondered if Sunny missed him, and whether she felt anything like the ache that filled his chest whenever he thought of her.

  “Oh my, sad face,” Fatespeaker said, nudging Starflight’s wing as they walked. “Cheer up. What’s your name?”

  “That wasn’t in your vision?” Starflight tilted his head curiously. He’d always wondered how much detail the visions had. The prophecy Morrowseer had delivered years ago was remarkably cryptic, but perhaps there was more information in the seer’s head that he hadn’t shared.

  “Um …” Fatespeaker wobbled her head back and forth, squinting thoughtfully at him. “Oh, of course — Bigtoes!”

  “What?” Starflight glanced down at his talons, a little offended. “No, no. It’s Starflight.”

  “Oh,” she said. “Are you sure?”

  “Quite sure.”

  She shrugged. “Well, I was close. Hi, Starflight! I’m Fatespeaker. You’re probably wondering why you’ve never seen me before.”

  Starflight paused midstep and frowned at her. “Am I?”

  “It’s because I didn’t grow up here,” she carried on blithely without noticing his reaction. Morrowseer’s growl echoed down the corridor and they both started walking faster. “I only got to the island yesterday. I know this is going to sound crazy, but I was raised by the Talons of Peace!”

  Starflight walked straight into a chandelier. He staggered back, his head spinning.

  “Oh, ouch,” Fatespeaker said. She patted his shoulder gingerly. “That looked painful. Anyway, so it turns out I’m part of that big dragonet prophecy everyone is so excited about. Can you believe it?”

  No, Starflight thought.

  “I’m the ‘wings of night,’” she said proudly. “Morrowseer says it’s up to me to stop the war. For some reason he seems kind of grumpy about that.”

  Starflight felt all his hope flicker and go out. He’d been praying quietly that maybe this was another NightWing intervention to point him in the right direction. He’d hoped perhaps he’d be given another lecture and then sent back to his friends.

  But apparently Fierceteeth was right: he was here because he’d failed.

  And Fatespeaker was his replacement.

  It made sense. Fatespeaker had powers and Starflight did not. He’d failed to follow Morrowseer’s orders more than once. He was a useless NightWing and a useless dragonet of destiny.

  “Wow,” Fatespeaker said, finally noticing his expression. “You look like someone just ate your only walrus. Are you all right?”

  “I —” Starflight began. “I just thought —”

  They came around a bend in the tunnel and nearly stepped on Morrowseer’s tail. He gave them a glare that shut Starflight up in a hurry.

  Fatespeaker, however, was undaunted.

  “labs,” she read off the door in front of them. “Oooo, what does that mean?”

  “It means don’t touch anything,” Morrowseer said grimly. “We are here so Starflight can meet his father. If we’re very unlucky, he’ll have time to give us a tour of all the experiments he’s working on.” He hissed. “Let’s get this over with.”

  The door swung open to reveal a huge room, more brightly lit and cleanly kept than any other part of the fortress that Starflight had seen. They were standing on a balcony; there was a level above them and a level below them, and a criss-crossing network of strange pipes stretching across the space in front of them.

  “No, no!” cried a voice. A whip-thin black dragon shot down from the top level and hovered in front of them. He wore an odd helmet over his whole head, with only a few small holes poked in it for him to see out — rather like the queen’s council screen, Starflight thought. “I must not be interrupted! This experiment is at a critical juncture! And Greatness says I might be shut down at any moment! Everyone please leave!” He flapped his wings and front talons at them.

  “Mastermind,” Morrowseer said coolly. “It seems you were right all along. The dragonet from Farsight’s egg is apparently your son, and he’s here now, so I’ve brought him to meet you.”

  Starflight tensed, expecting the other dragon to shrug and shoo them away.

  But instead Mastermind reached up and removed his helmet, revealing a snout pockmarked with little scars and curious
bloodshot eyes.

  “My son?” he said, and Starflight felt a happy shiver at the tone of wonder in his voice. Mastermind landed on the balcony beside them, set his helmet on the floor, and took Starflight’s shoulders in his talons. “Three moons,” he said. “What a handsome dragonet. He does look like me; I knew he would. As I suspected, this jawline is genetically dominant.” He gestured to the same spot on himself and on Starflight. “Ah, and yes, see the way the star scales on our wings spray outward, like a splash of water, whereas Morrowseer’s, for instance, curl inward, more like a snail shell.” He flared one of his wings and then reached for Morrowseer’s, but the larger NightWing batted him away with a snarl. “All theories at this point, of course,” Mastermind said, and Starflight found himself smiling back at his father’s toothy grin. “A larger data set would naturally be essential for proving anything, but one is much better than none; entirely wonderful, in fact, especially compared to most of the rest of the tribe. Including yourself, right, Morrowseer? No dragonets as yet?”

  Morrowseer’s face indicated he did not intend to dignify that with a response.

  “But I have a son,” Mastermind said proudly. “I, of all dragons! Let’s see Strongwings laugh now! Just wait until everyone sees my handsome offspring.” He clapped Starflight’s shoulder again. “So strong and healthy! You can be the assistant I’ve been looking for. What are you interested in, son?”

  Son. Starflight’s knees felt as if they might not hold him up very well for much longer.

  “Um, everything,” he stammered. “Scrolls. I like scrolls.”

  “Fantastic!” Mastermind said. “I have lots of scrolls. How about desalinization? Know anything about it?”

  Starflight perked up. “A little — taking the salt out of seawater to make it potable, right?”

  “Potable?” Fatespeaker interjected. She was watching them with wide, startled eyes, and Starflight remembered that she didn’t know yet that he’d been raised away from the island, too.

  “Drinkable,” Starflight explained. “Is that what those pipes are for?”

  “Very good,” said Mastermind, waving his talons excitedly. “We have only one freshwater source on the island, and it’s become rather contaminated with ash over the last few years, so I invented this magnificent contraption to provide safe water for the entire tribe.…”

  He talked on and on, pointing to the various pipes and explaining the science behind the process. Starflight listened with fascination. He’d never met a dragon who seemed so full of information — like a walking library of scrolls.

  “Come, come,” Mastermind said eagerly, gathering his helmet and leaping off the balcony. “I’ll show you what else I’m working on.”

  Starflight glanced at Morrowseer for permission, and the large NightWing rolled his eyes and sat down with a yawn. Fatespeaker didn’t wait to be invited; she flew behind them as Mastermind led the way down to the bottom level.

  “Here is where I do all my vulcanology,” he said, striding between tables laden with cauldrons of lava and steaming holes dug right into the ground. “I’m testing for materials that can withstand eruptions, and working on scale models of barriers, and outlining possible implementation systems. No wonder I need an assistant, right?”

  “This place is pretty cool,” Fatespeaker said, glancing around at the volcano experiments.

  “It’s amazing,” Starflight said. He peered down at the smoke issuing from a deep hole. He wanted to study each section of the lab in careful detail. There was a strange contraption in the corner that looked as if it was designed to fit entirely around a dragon and then be filled with something — water, maybe? He couldn’t even imagine. He already had a million questions and a couple of ideas about lava that might be worth testing, if his dad didn’t mind some suggestions.

  Mastermind flicked his tail at a corner of the lab where tiny versions of the mountain had been constructed with little fortresses stuck on the side. Several of them were already smoldering ruins. “Not going well, as you can see!” He laughed a little, almost nervously. “Queen Battlewinner isn’t pleased about that. Of course, she has her own ideas about where I should be focusing my attention. Come, come!”

  He lifted off toward the top level. Starflight took one more look around, wondering what could be more interesting or important than protecting the tribe from the volcano. I wonder if he’s done any research on NightWings infecting the prey they bite. Maybe I could help him study it.

  He shook himself, blinking. Sounds like I’m planning to stay. He glanced at Fatespeaker, then quickly away at one of the smoking jars of lava. I might not have any choice about that. But — they have to let me see Sunny again. If I’m trapped here forever, without her, without even a chance to say good-bye —

  “Come on!” Fatespeaker interrupted his thoughts, tugging him into the air.

  They hurried after Mastermind and discovered that the third level was another balcony with several doors ranged around it, each one marked with three or four different symbols.

  Starflight’s father stopped in front of one door and rubbed his front talons together. “About a year ago, we discovered a truly, truly astonishing natural phenomenon. You won’t know about this. The Talons of Peace have no idea; none of the other tribes do. Our understanding of this biological anomaly is as yet so new and incomplete that we haven’t even put it in any scrolls — certainly not the ones we distribute on the mainland, but also not even the ones that are For NightWing Eyes Only. I’m preparing a treatise on the subject, but there’s still so much to learn that I have no idea when I’ll think it’s ready for publication.

  “You see,” he said, leaning toward them, “it turns out one tribe of dragons has evolved an unusual defense mechanism. They can shoot venom from their fangs — deadly, toxic venom that essentially melts any animal or plant matter it comes in contact with. And you’ll never believe which tribe!” He didn’t wait for them to guess. “RainWings!”

  “RainWings!” Fatespeaker echoed in a surprised voice. Starflight’s heart was sinking. He suddenly had a feeling he really did not want to see what was behind these doors.

  “Let’s see — we’ll start here,” Mastermind said. He opened one of the doors to reveal a long, narrow stone room. A set of silver shackles with very short chains was bolted to the floor near the entrance. And all along the length of the room, black marks scarred the floor and walls, with indecipherable notes scribbled beside each one in chalk.

  Starflight stared at the shackles, feeling ill.

  Mastermind hopped down the room, avoiding the black patches, although they all seemed to be hardened and harmless, like old lava. “This was one of our first questions, naturally, when we first learned that RainWings could shoot venom. How far? Was it a short-range weapon or a long-range weapon? Would we be able to approach and incapacitate them if we developed projectiles that could be fired from a safe distance?”

  He stopped at the far end of the room and indicated a mark on the floor. “This is as far as I’ve seen any one dragon shoot. An older male RainWing, so my hypothesis is that it’s a skill that gets stronger as they age.” He rubbed the horns on his head, frowning in thought. “I wonder if they have any elderly dragons we could bring over and test.”

  “Bring over,” Starflight thought bitterly. As if they’re invited guests instead of abducted prisoners.

  Fatespeaker was eyeing the shackles nervously, too. She looked as if she didn’t know quite how to ask about them.

  “The next obvious question is: what materials aren’t affected by the venom? Anything we could use as armor or a shield?” Mastermind went on, hopping back up the room toward them. “Come, come!” He ushered them out and over to the next door. “We had to devise ways to study the dragons without placing ourselves in danger, naturally. Very few RainWings have ever deliberately tried to shoot their venom at us, but it goes very badly when they do — it’s quite horrifying, really.”

  He opened the door and swept his talon tow
ard the tables inside. Items of different shapes, sizes, and materials were arranged in related groups. One table contained a gathering of sad little plants in pots, drooping yellow flowers dripping with black. Another was all rocks. And a third — Starflight looked away quickly when he realized that the trays all contained remains of living things: sloths, lizards, fish — that hadn’t survived the experimental process.

  “Ew!” Fatespeaker cried.

  “We’ve tested it on everything,” Mastermind said proudly. “Turns out it doesn’t affect metal, so.” He banged on his helmet, which gave out a muffled clang in response. “But anything alive, plant or animal, it just destroys. If it gets in your eyes or your bloodstream, you’re dead within minutes. If it only hits your scales, you’ll wish you were. We have a couple of recent victims I’ll be getting to study as soon as they’re released from the healers.” He rubbed his talons together again. “If you’re lucky I’ll let you take a peek,” he said to Starflight. “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what RainWing venom can do.”

  “I know what it can do,” Starflight choked out. “I’ve seen it kill two dragons.” Possibly three, if Queen Scarlet is dead.

  He thought of Fjord, the first dragon Glory’s venom had killed — the IceWing who had been about to kill Clay in the arena. Some of the poison had landed on the open wounds on Fjord’s neck; that must have been why it killed him so quickly. And Crocodile, the MudWing who had betrayed the Talons of Peace and led the enemy right to the Summer Palace — when Glory killed her so they could escape, her venom had gone right into the dragon’s eyes.

  But Queen Scarlet … He shifted uneasily. If he remembered right, Glory’s spray of venom had landed on the side of the queen’s face. So she really might still be alive. Alive and looking like Vengeance, which didn’t bode well for the dragonets.

  Mastermind stared at him avidly. “Two dragons? Killed them? Are you sure? How incredibly careless; we haven’t picked up any RainWings with that little control yet.”

  “It wasn’t careless. It was on purpose,” Starflight said, annoyed on Glory’s behalf.

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