The brightest night, p.14
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       The Brightest Night, p.14

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  She could see the wing of dragons in the distance, approaching the stronghold — too close, only minutes away from finding out what had happened — and she was pretty sure the hulking shape in the lead was truly Burn.

  Her eyes scanned the horizon. Had Peril made it out safely? Or would Peril always be safe, because no one could get near her with talons like hers?

  She spotted two small shapes winging away to the north, glinting orange and gold in the sunlight. Peril and Queen Scarlet, now free. Sunny shuddered. If Queen Scarlet really did know where the dragonets were, how long did they have before she came for them? What kind of revenge had she planned, all those nights in the horrible tower?

  A feeling of dread climbed into her chest and squeezed; for a moment she couldn’t breathe.

  Clay — Tsunami — Glory — and poor wounded Starflight.

  “Mother!” she called, beating her wings to catch up to Thorn.

  Thorn grinned toothily at her. “I’ve been called lots of things in my life, but that’s the strangest and the best at the same time.”

  Sunny brushed her mother’s wingtip with her own. “I have to return to my friends,” she said. “I need to warn them — I’m afraid they’re in danger, now that Queen Scarlet is free.”

  “Probably,” Thorn agreed. She hesitated. “Couldn’t I send a messenger instead? I wanted to bring you back to the Scorpion Den — I still haven’t heard about your life and what you’ve been doing all these years.”

  “I know,” Sunny said. She wished she could stay with her mother, with those warm strong wings close by to keep her safe. For the first time, she could imagine life without the prophecy. She could be a normal dragon, living in the Scorpion Den with her mother instead of worrying about saving the whole world. But prophecy or not, her friends were her real life, her whole life. She couldn’t leave them in danger. “But this is really important. I’ll come back to you soon. Or — you could come with me?”

  Thorn sighed and shook her head. “There might be retaliation from the stronghold. I have to fortify the Den, prepare my dragons, make sure everyone’s safe.”

  That was true. Thorn had risked a lot, bringing her Outclaws into this dangerous rescue mission. Sunny touched her wingtip again. “Thank you for coming to get me.”

  “Always,” Thorn said fiercely.

  “I’ll see you soon,” Sunny said, tilting her wings.

  “Sunny!” Thorn called. “Be careful!”

  “I will,” Sunny called back, already soaring toward the mountains.

  “No, I mean —” Thorn swooped out of the formation for a moment, catching up to her and circling her in the air. “I mean, if you go see your father. I know you’re thinking about it.” She nodded at the line of mountains, where the jagged peak of Jade Mountain towered darkly over the rest. “Be careful with Stonemover. If all that is true about being an animus … well, I saw him do a lot of magic. We don’t know how much soul he has left.”

  “Are you going to go see him?” Sunny asked.

  “Someday,” Thorn said with a small flicker of anger in her eyes. “Apparently he’s in no hurry, so I’ll take care of my dragons first.”

  “I should do that, too,” Sunny said. “With my dragons, I mean.”

  Thorn smiled at her. “See you soon, daughter.”

  Sunny watched as the Outclaws soared away across the desert, all their wingbeats together stirring up small sandstorms below them. Then she oriented herself toward the mountains again and flew, beating her wings as fast as they would move.

  She couldn’t use the tunnel to the rainforest; she couldn’t risk the trip past Burn’s stronghold to get to it. It would be safer, if longer, to go over the mountains. But she should have a head start on Peril and Scarlet, who had flown the other way and who didn’t know about the tunnels. I hope, she thought. I don’t think there’s any way they could know.

  Her breath seemed to come more easily with every wingbeat, even as the forest and the mountains came closer and closer. She was leaving the desert — but she was going back to her friends at last.

  The plan was to go straight to the rainforest.

  As tempted as Sunny was by the idea of meeting her father, she was more worried about her friends. She needed to get back and warn them, fast.

  But the weather had other plans.

  A gale-force wind howled down the mountains that night, carrying with it the worst storm Sunny had ever been caught in. Not that she’d encountered many, living in caves her whole life — but there was that one hurricane in the Kingdom of the Sea, and Sunny was pretty sure this was worse.

  Or maybe it only felt worse because she was alone and caught outside with no shelter and rapidly becoming very, very wet.

  The rain pelted in her eyes and dragged down her wings, while the wind kept trying to slam her into the cliffs, and the whole time, thunder roared as though the clouds were playing drums on the mountaintops. Lightning cracked terrifyingly close to her wings, and Sunny thought, I won’t be able to save anyone if I end up as a fiery heap in a ravine.

  She veered toward the peak of Jade Mountain, the one solid thing she could identify in the driving storm.

  Will he be there?

  Will he want to meet me?

  Will he be scary, or awful, or dangerous? Will he be like Orca, the crazy animus SeaWing who killed all those dragonets?

  She wished she had Clay or Tsunami with her. That would have been better, if she could have gone back to the rainforest first and gotten one of them to come along, so she didn’t have to meet her mysterious, powerful, potentially homicidal father alone.

  But the storm drove her on as if it had talons of its own, dragging her up the mountain with shrieking fury.

  Soaking wet, exhausted, and shivering with anxiety, Sunny finally crash-landed in a cave high up on the mountain’s south side. She stumbled to a stop, scraping her scales painfully on the rocky floor, and shook out her wings in a flurry of droplets.

  It was dark inside, and Sunny thought it was unlikely that she’d have accidentally wandered into the exact cave where her father lived. Surely there were other caves all over the mountain. But the darkness made her uneasy, and cautiously she breathed out a plume of fire.

  Nothing. An empty stone cavern loomed around her, not that different from the ones she’d grown up in. She breathed more fire, letting it warm her from the inside, and searched the cave until she found a thick branch that had been swept inside by the storm. She set it ablaze and held it up to use as a torch.

  The flickering light revealed a gap in the rocks in the back corner. When she investigated, she found a sort of natural tunnel that seemed to lead farther into the mountain, to a cave system that probably ran all the way through it.

  Sunny hesitated, leaning against the stone wall. Should she rest here and fly on in the morning? Maybe she could leave unnoticed and come back when she had reinforcements.

  But how could I get this close to my father and not try to see him?

  She thought of Peril and Kestrel, and how Peril had thought they’d have more time to get to know each other. You never know what might happen.

  That decided her. Holding up the torch, she slipped into the gap and started down the rocky slope beyond.

  She wandered for what felt like a long time, marking the walls with her claws whenever she came to a fork in the tunnels. She found caves dripping with stalactites, clambered over rocks like giant bubbles, flew over a dark pool with no ripples where her torch reflected eerily across the glassy surface.

  It felt familiar, being underground like this. She wondered if other dragons — especially other SandWings — would be more unnerved by these surroundings. But this was so similar to the small, enclosed world she grew up in. She almost expected to turn a corner and find the study cave, with the map spread against one wall and scrolls piled in the corner and her friends arguing over who would play Blaze when they acted out the history of the war.

  And then … she stopped in a narrow pass
ageway with a low, craggy ceiling.

  Was that breathing?

  She held her own breath and listened.

  It sounds like breathing.

  Air rasped quietly somewhere, in and out, as if something large were sitting concealed in shadows … not too far away … maybe even watching her.

  Sunny’s scales crawled and she clutched the torch closer. Do not panic. Listen.

  After a long moment, she realized that the breathing was even and rhythmic. That’s not the sound of something lurking; that’s the sound of a dragon sleeping.

  She crept up a passageway toward the noise. I think it’s this way.

  Sharp edges of rocks caught on her tail and stabbed at her feet as she climbed. Closer … and closer …

  The torchlight flickered suddenly, dipping and swaying, and then Sunny felt it as well: a gust of wind, whistling down the tunnel from far away.

  She lifted the torch higher and saw that the tunnel widened into a cave only a few paces ahead.

  At first, as she edged closer, the cave looked empty … but then the firelight reflected off something black and glossy in the shadows against the back wall.

  Scales. Black scales, rising and falling in sleep. It was a NightWing for sure.

  Sunny stopped and stared at the slumbering dragon.

  Is that my father?

  He was bigger than Thorn, but not enormous, nowhere near the size of Morrowseer or Burn. Deep lines were etched into his face, so he looked as if he were in pain even in his sleep. His talons were curled awkwardly into stiff shapes and his tail flopped heavily along the ground behind him, barely moving as he breathed, as though it were made of stone.

  Sunny took a quick breath in, and then stepped closer.

  It wasn’t just his tail. Other parts of the dragon — his back legs, his shoulders, the edges of his wings — looked heavier and thicker than a normal dragon’s scales.

  Like he’s actually turning into stone. Is that possible?

  She lifted the torch and peered at the section of tail closest to her. The black scales looked like dark pebbles here, sinking into the skin beneath.

  She was so preoccupied, studying this odd phenomenon, that it took her a moment to realize that the dragon’s eyes had opened, and he was staring back at her.

  “Oh!” she gasped, jumping back. “I’m sorry! I didn’t — I mean — I didn’t mean to wake you — I was — the storm —”

  “I don’t bite,” he said in a deep, serious voice.

  “Oh,” Sunny said again. “Well. That’s good. You mean you don’t bite other dragons, right? Like me? Are you being reassuring?”

  He blinked slowly at her. “I don’t bite … other dragons.”

  “Great,” said Sunny, not feeling very reassured. It was unsettling how he hadn’t moved a muscle of his body as he spoke to her; even his jaws seemed to hinge very slowly open for him to talk. “So … hi. I’m Sunny.”

  He didn’t answer.

  She waited a moment, then said, “Are you Stonemover?”

  That seemed to surprise him a little, if the tiny flicker of movement in his brow meant anything. “Yes.”

  It is my father. It’s really him. He’s still alive and right here in front of me.

  And he doesn’t look crazy and homicidal. He just looks … sad.

  Stonemover blinked again. “How did the Talons find out my name?”

  “I’m not from the Talons,” she said. “Do the Talons come here? Oh, right, Kestrel said we could send her a message through you. I guess that would be useful when you’re an underground movement and never know where you’ll have to hide.”

  “True,” he said. “After all, I am not going anywhere.”

  “Oh,” Sunny said, glancing at his scales. “Because — what happened to you?”

  “You are nosier than the Talons,” he observed, but without any anger in his voice. “It is my animus curse.”

  “Really?” Sunny said. “This happened to you when you used your magic? I thought you’d lose your, you know, soul or something, not … this.” She waved her claws at the petrified scales weighing him down.

  “I turned the magic on itself,” he said. “The curse appears in my scales now instead of taking my soul.” He sighed through his nose, a sad, windy sound with drifts of smoke. “Too late anyway.”

  “Too late for what?” Sunny asked.

  “My soul.” He managed to turn his head a fraction toward her with an eerie creaking sound. His dark eyes were as still and unreadable as the underground cave lake. “The things I have done.”

  “You mean like building the tunnels,” Sunny said, and now there was a definite flash of surprise all the way through his eyes. Then it faded, and his eyes narrowed as he examined her from horns to talons. It might have been scary once, his expression, except that the rest of him was so pathetic and sad. He could hardly even move. Sunny didn’t feel afraid of him at all.

  “Who are you?” he asked.

  “I’m —” Well, this felt awkward, just throwing it out there midconversation. But how else could she tell him? Was there an easy, not shocking way to break this kind of news? “OK. The truth is, I’m your daughter. Thorn is my mother. I only just found her, just — wow, just yesterday — no, two days ago — and she told me about you and —” Sunny talked on, not sure what to think of the expressions darting across Stonemover’s face: confusion, suspicion, hope, dismay, maybe anger? “And I wanted to meet you — I hope that’s — I hope you — well, I know it’s weird, because she never got a chance to tell you about me, so —”

  “We had eggs?” he rasped.

  “You had me,” Sunny said. “An egg, one dragonet. Just me.” She looked down at her talons. “Mother wanted to tell you. But she never got your note. She didn’t know you were here until she found it yesterday. She’s been looking everywhere for you.”

  Her father sighed through his nose and closed his eyes. “I thought she’d given up on me.”

  “She might have now,” Sunny said, trying to prompt more of a response. Why didn’t he care more? Why hadn’t he tried harder? She felt a wave of sympathy for her mother. “Why didn’t you go look for her?”

  “I’m not the right dragon for Thorn,” he said. “Perhaps I never was.”

  “She obviously thought you were,” Sunny pointed out. “She really worried about you.”

  He sighed again. He sighs a lot, Sunny thought, wishing she could poke something into his nose to make him stop. “There’s nothing I can do. I did all the wrong things … a long, long time ago … and nothing can change that.”

  Something suddenly scrabbled in the dark nearby and Sunny nearly leaped onto Stonemover’s back in terror.

  But when she swung the torch around and then down, the light reflected off tiny little eyes and pointed ears and wet russet fur.

  It was a fox, sauntering into their cave as bold as anything. Sunny realized it had come down another passageway, and she could feel the wind coming from that direction as well. The passage must lead to an exit out to the mountainside. The fox carried a dead squirrel in its jaws, and it gave Sunny a scornful look, as if it certainly didn’t expect her to dare pick a fight with someone as tough as him.

  “Shoo,” Sunny said sternly. “Go find yourself another cave.”

  “Oh, this is dinner,” Stonemover said. He hinged his jaw open, and to Sunny’s wonder, the fox trotted over and dropped the squirrel right into his mouth. It stepped back and gave Sunny another haughty look as Stonemover began to chew.

  “Wow,” Sunny said. Are foxes intelligent, too, like scavengers? What if all animals are smarter than we think they are? Is there going to be any prey left that I won’t feel bad about eating? “How did you train it to do that?”

  Stonemover waited until he’d swallowed, and then he said, “I didn’t. I enchanted him.”

  Sunny frowned at the fox. “You mean with animus magic? That only works on things. Not animals.”

  “Turns out it works on animals,” said Stone
mover, “if you’re desperate and try hard enough.”

  She folded her wings in and shivered. “That’s creepy.”

  “Dinner doesn’t mind,” he replied, and it took her a moment to figure it out.

  “You call the fox Dinner?” she said.

  “Why not?” His shoulder moved an infinitesimal amount, the smallest of shrugs.

  “Because that’s peculiar,” she said. “And really creepy for him, if he knew what you were saying.”

  “I didn’t think about it,” he said. “I’ve never introduced him to anyone before. Anyway, I only enchanted him to bring me food every few days; he still has a fine ordinary life as a fox, I’m sure.”

  As if in answer to this, Dinner shook himself vigorously, scattering water all over Sunny, and then trotted out of the cave again.

  “I mean,” Stonemover concluded, “I had to do something, or I would have starved.”

  “Hmm,” Sunny said. She didn’t like the thought of any dragon using magic to command a living thing. Would animus magic work on something bigger than a fox?

  She didn’t want to follow that thought to its possible conclusion.

  “I can’t believe I have a daughter,” Stonemover said, and Sunny felt a little warmer toward him, hearing the sadness in his voice. “I used to dream — I would think about what our dragonets might look like, if Thorn and I ever — but I thought it was too late.”

  “I bet you didn’t picture me,” Sunny said ruefully. “I don’t have the SandWing tail barb and I also don’t have any cool NightWing powers. I always thought maybe I looked weird because of the prophecy, somehow, but —”

  He would have sat up if he could, she could tell. His head twitched a little closer to her. His breath smelled like squirrel. “Prophecy?”

  “About the dragonets saving the world and stopping the war,” Sunny said. “You know. You must know.”

  “Yes,” he mused.

  “I’m one of them,” she said. “ ‘Hidden alone from the rival queens,’ that’s me. It’s kind of a long story.”

  “But —” he started, and paused.

  And then Sunny was scared, because the look in his eyes was the look of news she knew she didn’t want, and it was righteousness and pity and truth-is-the-important-thing and she didn’t want it, she didn’t want him to say it.

 
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