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The Brightest Night, Page 2

Tui T. Sutherland

  The RainWing across the stream from Sunny mustered an expression that looked almost fierce.

  Rain splattered across Sunny’s snout and wings. The storm was picking up strength, ripping through the treetops way over their heads.

  “Tonight you’ll stay right here,” Glory went on. “I don’t want any NightWings wandering off until we can count you and write you all down. You will each be assigned two RainWings to keep an eye on you. And yes, if you’re feeling like perhaps we don’t trust you very much, it’s because we don’t. None of you are welcome in the RainWing village until you earn that trust. We will find you somewhere else to live.”

  “We’ll get wet out here,” one of the burlier NightWings complained.

  Glory gave him a steely glare. “Feel free to go back and sleep on your nice dry island instead,” she snapped. “I hear it’s quite warm there.”

  Sunny glanced around at the NightWings. Even in the moonlight, she could see that most of them looked badly shaken and subdued. Seeing their home buried by the volcano — even if they knew it would happen eventually, and even though the island had been a terrible place to live — it still must have been an awful shock.

  Something like being told your whole life is a lie, I imagine.

  A roar suddenly erupted from the crowd behind her. Black dragons surged toward Sunny, flapping their wings in alarm, as two deep-red RainWings dove into their midst and dragged a yowling, petrified NightWing in front of Queen Glory.

  “This one!” growled one of the RainWings. “He can’t stay here! He’s the worst of all of them.”

  “He’s the one who did all the venom experiments on us,” said the other. She lashed her tail and hissed at him. Sunny had never seen any RainWings look so angry before, besides Glory. She craned her neck to peer at the NightWing and realized it was Starflight’s father, Mastermind, the head scientist of the NightWing tribe. From the look on Glory’s face, the queen was probably guessing exactly who it was, too.

  The NightWings had been kidnapping RainWings for the last year, imprisoning them and doing experiments to understand their venom-shooting abilities. They’d been planning to invade the rainforest to steal it from the RainWings — either by killing or enslaving all the peaceful rainforest dragons who already lived here.

  Sunny had seen the lava-riddled wasteland of an island where the NightWings lived. She knew they were desperate for a new home, and at first, she’d thought Starflight was brilliant for offering to let them come through to the rainforest as long as they pledged their loyalty to Queen Glory — along with a promise to behave peacefully. She liked the idea of dragons from different tribes learning to live together, she felt sorry for the sick and starving black dragons, and she loved the poetic justice of a RainWing becoming the new queen of the NightWings.

  But looking at the muttering dragons around her — the NightWings who didn’t look as sorry as they should, and the hissing RainWings who were only beginning to realize what their friends had been through — Sunny wondered if this had been a huge mistake. Maybe they should have let the NightWings be swallowed up by the volcano. Maybe it wasn’t possible to forgive them. Maybe we shouldn’t even try.

  If they could lie about something as huge and important as the prophecy and stopping the war, what else would they lie about? How could Glory ever trust them?

  “I’m sorry,” Mastermind croaked weakly. “It was … I was just … for science …” His voice sputtered out, and he cringed away from the RainWings beside him.

  Glory flared her wings and several colors rippled quickly through her scales. “Tie him up. We’ll figure out what to —”

  “Look out!” a dragon by the tunnel roared. “Stand clear!”

  Fatespeaker shot out of the hole and a moment later, Tsunami hurtled after her. “Everyone get down!” the SeaWing yelled.

  The NightWings by the tunnel all threw themselves to the ground. A blast of scorching heat crackled out of the hole, turning the raindrops around it to hissing steam. Sunny was one of the few still standing, looking at the tunnel, when two more dragons burst out of it.

  It was Clay, with his wings shielding Starflight. Starflight’s front talons were covering his eyes and long burns were blistering along his scales. As soon as they reached the open air, he collapsed to the ground.

  “Stay back!” Tsunami shouted ferociously at the dragons who were flapping around them.

  “Starflight!” Sunny cried, feeling a stab of guilt. He’s hurt. I never should have left my friends with Morrowseer. She jumped forward, trying to squeeze through the crowd of frantic dragons to get to him.

  But suddenly talons wrapped around her snout and shoulders, and she was yanked backward into the dark trees.

  Sunny thrashed furiously against the huge wings that wrapped around her.

  “Quick, while they’re all distracted,” she heard a voice hiss. A shower of raindrops pattered down on Sunny’s head as the dragon holding her ducked through the leaves. It was hard to see much more than black scales, but Sunny realized she was being dragged into the forest, away from the tunnels and the crowd of dragons.

  But I have to make sure Starflight is all right! She clawed at the arm that pinned her wings down, but the NightWing only grunted and held her tighter.

  Wet leaves squelched and slithered under their talons. From the sounds around her, Sunny guessed there were three NightWings, including her attacker, sneaking away from the scene while everyone was focused on Starflight and Clay.

  That’s … ominous. Maybe she should try to find out what they were up to. She stopped struggling and listened.

  The dragons were moving fast and quietly, even without flying; in just a few heartbeats, Sunny couldn’t hear what Glory and Tsunami were shouting anymore. They also moved purposefully, as if they knew the forest well.

  A hunting party, Sunny thought with a shiver. These are probably some of the dragons who came through the tunnel to kidnap RainWings.

  What do they want with me?

  “Here,” one of the dragons said after a while, and they all stopped. Even with Sunny’s sharp hearing, the dragons roaring behind them sounded like distant thunder muttering on the horizon. Rain poured down harder and harder, and the ever-present insect noises of the rainforest had gone into hiding.

  Sunny was dumped onto the ground, mud squishing between her claws and splattering her tail. She sprang up and hissed at the dragon who’d been carrying her. He barely glanced down at her before turning to the other two.

  “Now what?” he demanded. “The whole plan is ruined. I’m not staying here to kowtow to a RainWing dragonet.”

  “Me neither,” said one of the others, a female who was little more than a dragonet herself. Sunny guessed she was about nine years old. She was bedraggled, wet, bony, and hunched over, and yet when she snorted a burst of flame, Sunny could see her eyes gleaming with stubborn ferocity.

  “Plus they’ll probably kill me,” said the big dragon. “You saw how they were about Mastermind. If they remember that I was his assistant … I mean, I was the one who locked them up or stuck them to the walls for him. They’ll be after my blood if we stick around here.”

  “Where are we supposed to go?” hissed the last dragon, another male, much less brawny than the one who’d been carrying Sunny. He had a few missing teeth and his tail was bent at the end, as if it had once been broken and then fixed incorrectly. “We were promised the rainforest. This is where I want to live, but not as second-class dragons. Imagine, RainWings telling us what to do!”

  “Well, we’ve got her, like you suggested,” the big male said to the dragonet, flipping one wing toward Sunny. “So what do we do with her?”

  The NightWing dragonet lashed her tail and narrowed her eyes at Sunny. “We use her as a bargaining chip. We can hold her hostage until they take our whole tribe to the RainWing village and make one of us queen.”

  “Like who?” said the other male. He spat a small flame at the branch that was dripping on his head. “Gr
eatness is weak and won’t fight for it. Queen Battlewinner had no brothers or sisters and no other daughters. There’s no one else to claim the throne.”

  “I’ll take it,” said the dragonet. “That’d be even better than being in the prophecy. If that RainWing can be queen, why not me? I’m bigger than her.”

  “True,” growled the big one behind Sunny.

  “Well, I have bad news,” Sunny spoke up. “They won’t give you anything in exchange for me. I’m nobody. Just a weird-looking SandWing with a useless tail.” She snapped her mouth shut before her voice could start wavering. She’d been saying things like that her whole life, but she’d never felt awful about it until today. If there were no prophecy … then that meant she really was just weird-looking and useless.

  No, that’s not how it works. I’m weird-looking because I have a destiny. There’s a reason I’m like this. There has to be.

  The NightWings regarded her with skeptical expressions.

  “That would be annoying,” said the big one. “I’d be pretty angry if I carried this little thing through the forest and got my scales scratched up for no reason. Fierceteeth, I thought you said she’d be worth something.”

  Fierceteeth! Sunny remembered what Starflight had told them about the dragonets in the NightWing kingdom. Wasn’t Fierceteeth his half sister?

  “We can use her if she’s who I think she is,” said Fierceteeth. She jabbed Sunny painfully in the ribs. “Aren’t you Sunny? Starflight yapped on and on about a Sunny whenever he was asleep.”

  Sunny blinked at her, too startled to answer.

  “Yeah, this is her,” Fierceteeth said, answering her own question. “My brother’s totally in love with her. He’ll agree to anything to get her back.”

  That might actually be true, Sunny thought with alarm. Does he really talk about me in his sleep? Only a few hours had passed since she’d stood in the rainforest clearing, in the middle of dragons preparing to invade the NightWing island, and Starflight had told her he loved her — that he’d always loved her.

  She still didn’t know how she felt about that. She didn’t know what this feeling was, the strange ripples of surprise every time she remembered his expression. It was I don’t know what to do and somebody loves me and don’t hurt him and really, right now? and imagine how happy you could make him and why me? really, me? and but it’s Starflight. Her sweet, smart, anxious friend. She’d never thought of him like that, not once.

  It was still hard for her to believe that he meant it. None of the other dragonets took her seriously. She’d always assumed he was the same way — that he thought she was too little and cheerful to be worth listening to.

  Focus. Don’t let them use you to hurt your friends.

  “Didn’t you see Starflight’s injuries?” she said. “He’s too wounded to have any say in what happens next. And Glory couldn’t care less about me. Face it, you can’t use me. You should go back and rejoin the other NightWings.”

  “Nice try,” Fierceteeth said.

  “What if she’s right?” said the NightWing with the missing teeth. “What if they don’t want her? What if we expose ourselves and then they just kill us?”

  “Strongwings won’t let them do that,” Fierceteeth said, stepping closer to the burly dragon.

  They’re a couple, Sunny realized. A really strange couple. Strongwings was nearly twice the size of Fierceteeth, but he kept turning toward her and ducking his head as though he was waiting for her to order him around.

  “I know how we could find out,” said the other male. He drew something flat and shiny and oval-shaped from under his wing. In the moonlight, it shone like polished black glass and fit neatly between his front talons. And it stayed perfectly dry; the raindrops seemed to swerve to avoiding raining on it.

  “The Obsidian Mirror,” said Strongwings with a hiss of admiration. “Nice work, Preyhunter. I wondered if someone would think to save it.” He leaned in and touched the smooth surface with one claw. “No surprise that it wasn’t Greatness. She was more worried about saving her own scales.”

  “She never used it anyway,” snorted Preyhunter. “Even when we needed to know what the RainWings were up to. She said she didn’t trust anything that was enchanted by an animus. Coward. I don’t think the queen knew she wasn’t checking it.”

  “It doesn’t work as well as it used to,” Strongwings said. “Everyone thinks Stonemover did something to it before he disappeared.”

  “What is it?” Fierceteeth asked.

  “A really old animus-touched piece of treasure,” Strongwings explained. “This was one of the most important things we had to save from the treasure room when the volcano erupted and buried that part of the fortress, back when I was a small dragonet. We use it for —” He stopped and glanced at Sunny. “Hmm.”

  “Don’t worry, we’ll kill her before she can tell anyone anything important,” said Preyhunter.

  Go ahead and try, Sunny thought fiercely. No one else has managed it yet.

  He tilted the mirror so it caught the light of the two moons glowing through the clouds above them. The third moon was just a thin crescent, barely cresting the tops of the trees. The rain had slowed to a misty drizzle.

  “Show me how it works,” Fierceteeth demanded. She snapped a branch off the nearest tree and set the end on fire, leaves crackling wetly in the flames.

  “We just need a name,” said Strongwings. “Uh. Someone important.”

  “That RainWing queen, obviously,” Fierceteeth snapped. He looked blank and she hissed at him. “Glory.”

  “Glory,” whispered the dragon holding the Obsidian Mirror. He breathed a plume of smoke across the dark glass. The smoke coiled and twisted, winding like a thin snake around the outer rim of the mirror for a few heartbeats. All at once the smoke vanished as if it had been sucked into the mirror, and a moment later, one tendril curled up from the center of the glass, white tinted with purple, curving like a dragon’s neck.

  “Mangrove!” the tendril barked abruptly in Glory’s voice. “Make sure none of them have any more of those spears. Jambu, you and Grandeur start counting them — the NightWings, just to be clear, not the spears.”

  Fierceteeth grinned, her teeth gleaming whitely in the moonlight. “This is happening right now?” she whispered, and Strongwings nodded. “Brilliant.”

  Yes, I can see how that would be a useful trick, Sunny thought bitterly. Especially for convincing other dragons that you have mystical mind-reading abilities.

  A pinkish wisp of smoke curled up on the mirror next to the first one.

  “You bet, no problem, Your Majesty,” it said. “Except, uh … so, counting. Um. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really good at it. Up to, like … twenty? That’s a pretty big number, right? There probably aren’t more NightWings here than that.”

  “Jambu, there are at least two hundred NightWings here,” Glory snapped.

  “Hum,” he said. “That’s like … two twenties? Maybe three?”

  “I cannot even roll my eyes at you right now,” Glory said. “Find me a RainWing who can count.”

  “I’ll do it.” A darker coil of smoke appeared, right next to the first. It took Sunny a moment to recognize the voice of Deathbringer, the assassin who had been ordered to kill Glory but instead helped her escape the NightWings.

  “Funny,” Glory said. “Tell me another. I love jokes about trusting NightWings.”

  “You exasperating creature,” Deathbringer said. “Haven’t I not killed you multiple times already?”

  “I knew it,” snarled Preyhunter, curling his claws around the mirror. “I knew Vengeance was right about him. Deathbringer is a traitor.”

  “We’ll take care of him when the rainforest is ours,” hissed Strongwings.

  “Fine,” Glory’s voice said. “Go count NightWings. I’ll have Starflight check your numbers when he wakes up.”

  “A ringing vote of confidence,” Deathbringer answered, sounding amused. The dark wisp of smoke coiled back into the mirr
or, as did the pinkish one. Glory’s tendril of smoke twisted for a moment, alone on the glass.

  “He will wake up, right?” she finally said quietly.

  “I think so.” A new spiral of mud-colored smoke wound its way up from the mirror, and Sunny felt her heart jump hopefully at the sound of Clay’s voice. He always made her feel better — even from the other side of the rainforest. “But he was burned pretty badly. We should use the darts to make him keep sleeping until he’s healed as much as possible, I think. It’ll hurt a lot when he wakes up.”

  Oh, poor Starflight. Sunny curled her tail around her talons.

  “And his eyes?” Glory asked. “Will they be all right?”

  “I don’t know,” Clay said.

  “All right, I did a perimeter sweep,” Tsunami’s voice said bossily as a blue twist of smoke appeared on the mirror. “I made sure any gaps were filled with RainWings holding spears and blowguns, and I added a few more guards on the tunnels. I don’t think they look very scary, but hopefully the NightWings will.” The blue smoke whisked around the other two tendrils as if Tsunami was circling them to land.

  “That’s why I need you two here,” Glory said. “The healers who took Starflight back to the village can look after him until we get there. But for corralling NightWings, you’re the most intimidating dragons I have.”

  “Mwa ha!” Clay said. “That’s me! Intimidating! Roar!”

  “Well, you are until you do that,” Tsunami said.

  “Hey, at least you’re not bright pink,” Glory said. “That’s extremely helpful right now.”

  “It’s all right,” Clay said. “Sunny’s probably at the village already. She’ll look after Starflight, no matter how upset she is.”

  Sunny winced and Fierceteeth gave her a sharp look.

  “Why is she upset?” Glory asked.

  “That slime lizard Morrowseer,” Tsunami answered. “He told us that the prophecy is fake. He made it all up as part of the plan for the NightWings to take over the rainforest.”