The brightest night, p.15
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       The Brightest Night, p.15

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Stop, don’t,” she blurted, but at the same time he said:

  “But don’t you know? The prophecy isn’t real.”

  “Hmm,” Stonemover said, studying her expression. “You did know. You know it’s fake.”

  “Well, I’ve heard that,” Sunny said. The walls felt as if they were tilting in toward her. She curled her claws and twitched her tail, avoiding his eyes. “That’s what Morrowseer said. But why should we trust him?”

  Stonemover managed to look faintly amused. “Morrowseer wouldn’t make himself seem any less powerful if he could ever avoid it. He must have been forced to tell you the truth, for some reason.”

  “He was manipulating us, like always,” Sunny said. “But just because I don’t like him doesn’t mean the prophecy couldn’t be real.”

  “Oh, little dragon,” Stonemover said, and she got the feeling he’d already forgotten her name. “I promise you the prophecy is not real. I was there when they came up with it. I was also there when the NightWing scribes were ordered to write more about our so-called powers, building them up in every scroll, every story. Queen Battlewinner planned that carefully. But no NightWing has had any power to see the future or read minds in over a hundred years, if anyone ever did. That is the truth.”

  Sunny wanted to throw things and yell like her mother did when she was angry. “NightWings,” she growled. “You guys make it really, really hard to like you. Why are you telling me this? You obviously haven’t told the Talons, or everyone would know.”

  “Because I suspect I am dying,” he said with a dry cough, “and someone should know. If not my own daughter, then who?”

  “Well, hooray,” Sunny said. “Lucky me.” She tucked her tail around her talons and hunched her wings up. After a moment, she said, “Really? Are you really dying?”

  “I’m always dying,” he answered, which also made Sunny want to poke him in the nose. She honestly had no idea why her mother had ever liked this dragon.

  But at least he’s telling me the truth. That’s more than I can say for most of the grown-up dragons I’ve ever known. She tried to push down the bitterness she felt about NightWings and all their lies; she tried to look at just Stonemover, her father, and see him as his own dragon, not one of a tribe.

  He’s really sad.

  Imagine if I had been born with animus powers into a terrible place like the NightWing island. The queen must have used him from the moment they found out what he could do. He never had a choice about what to do with his life.

  Maybe nobody does.

  Even though I want to end the war so badly, maybe there’s nothing I can do.

  The prophecy was really fake. Her life was really a lie. She was really not special, and she was really not destined to save the world.

  She looked at her father, whose eyes had closed. His breathing was starting to slow down, as if he were falling asleep again.

  “Can I stay here tonight?” she asked.

  “Please do,” he said quietly.

  Sunny blew out the torch and curled up in a ball in the warmest corner of the cave, across from Stonemover’s petrified scales. She rested her chin on her front talons, feeling like her own scales were made of stone, too, heavy and exhausting to lug around. She wished she could wake up back in the cave under the mountain two months ago, before any of this had happened, when she still believed in the prophecy, their destiny, a wonderful future, and perfect parents waiting out there for all of them.

  Her eyes closed, and her sadness drifted away into sleep.

  * * *

  Sunny was back in the stronghold, wandering through Burn’s weirdling collection, except instead of a tower, it had become an endless maze of increasingly creepy oddities. Every time she turned a corner, a new disturbing thing lurched toward her.

  She realized Flower was sitting on her shoulder, holding on to her neck like one of the rainforest sloths and chattering quietly to herself.

  This was comforting only for a moment, and then a headless gray dragon suddenly loomed out of a shadowy doorway, tottering at her and splattering blood from its claws.

  Sunny leaped aside, pressing her back against the wall. She closed her eyes.

  Stop. Stop. Don’t be scared. This is just a dream. You’re safe now, far away from Burn.

  She imagined the bright rolling sand of the desert, trying to change her dream surroundings by force of will. After a few moments, she felt the warmth of sunlight on her face, and she opened her eyes.

  It had worked. She was standing on the desert sand … and right in front of her was a scavenger.

  Sunny started back with a yelp of surprise, and so did the scavenger. But it didn’t turn and run, and it didn’t scream. It just stood there and blinked at her with enormous brown eyes.

  She reached up to her shoulder. Flower was still there. This scavenger in front of her was not Flower — Sunny had never seen it before.

  Aw, Sunny thought. It’s so cute. She guessed it was female, like Flower, although this one seemed smaller and younger. Seeing Flower … that’s probably why she was dreaming about scavengers, although it was surprising to dream up one she’d never seen before. A long, dark mane flowed from the scavenger’s head down to the middle of her back, and she had the same adorable little nose and monkey features as Smolder’s pet, including the long, thin, clever paws with no claws on the end.

  Sunny tilted her head at the scavenger’s paws. Wait. She was holding something — something about the size of an orange, which caught the desert sunlight with a shimmer of blue.

  While Starflight had been trapped with the NightWings, he’d found a way to communicate with his friends by dropping into their dreams using an old animus-touched sapphire called a dreamvisitor. Apparently there were three of them out there in the world somewhere, and he had found one on the NightWing island. Glory had explained it to Sunny and Clay and Tsunami, rolling her eyes as if she couldn’t believe they’d forgotten that one sentence in one scroll they’d studied years ago. Sometimes she could be as bad as Starflight, although nobody would ever dare tell her that.

  Sunny took a step toward the scavenger, but she didn’t even flinch back. Instead, she took a step toward Sunny, holding out her free paw. She pointed at Flower and chattered something.

  Am I not dreaming? Is this real?

  Could a scavenger possibly have a dreamvisitor? How would it have gotten a dragon jewel like that?

  She inhaled sharply, flaring her wings. The only possible way: by stealing it. From the queen of the SandWings, twenty years ago.

  “Where did you get that?” she asked, flicking her tail at the jewel in the scavenger’s paw.

  The scavenger looked down at the dreamvisitor. Her eyes widened, and the desert sand behind her suddenly went blurry. Sunny caught a glimpse of black shapes around her, towering against a background of trees in moonlight.

  With a muffled yelp, the scavenger gave Sunny a fierce look, clutched the sapphire to her chest, and vanished.

  “Wait!” Sunny shouted. “I need that treasure!” She pounced on the spot where the scavenger had been, digging frantically in the sand. But of course it was gone, popping out of her dream as abruptly as it had popped in. And there was no way to get her back — the scavenger was the one who had the dreamvisitor, and therefore controlled where she went and who she saw.

  But why would she visit me? And how? I thought you could only visit the dreams of dragons you’ve met before.

  Or seen … she must have seen me somewhere, sometime while we were traveling around Pyrrhia. Although I’m sure I didn’t see her.

  Sunny sat down, sweeping her claws through the sand.

  So if I can figure out where, maybe I can find her — and the stolen SandWing treasure.

  She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to bring back those blurry dark shapes that she’d glimpsed behind the scavenger, just for a moment. They’d looked familiar. And there had been trees, too — so it wasn’t the Kingdom of the Sea, or the Sky Kingdom
. Were there scavengers in the rainforest?

  The trees didn’t look tall enough.

  Sunny’s eyes snapped open. The forest between the mountains and the desert. Where I saw the ruins of the old scavenger den.

  The little scavenger was in the ruins.

  Which means now I know where to start looking.

  It was still raining when Sunny woke up the next morning. She could hear the pitter-patter at the far end of the passageway, and the breeze that gusted toward them smelled damp and fresh. But it came along with dim morning light, and the wind wasn’t as cold or fierce as it had been the night before. She felt sure that the worst of the storm had passed.

  She stood up and stretched, reaching her wings as wide and high as they would go and pressing her talons out in front of her.

  Everything felt less awful again, somehow.

  Her father was still asleep. Sunny hesitated, half tempted to leave without saying good-bye, but she couldn’t do that to him.

  “Stonemover?” She picked up the burnt stick she’d used for a torch and nudged a part of his shoulder that didn’t look entirely made of stone yet.

  “Mmmph?” he answered. His eyes slowly peeled open.

  “I have to go,” she said.

  “Already?” He sighed, this time long and smoky so she had to step back to breathe. “Can’t you stay? It’s really … quiet here.”

  Really lonely, you mean, she thought.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, then added with a burst of excitement, “I think I’ve figured out how to end the war. I mean, I think I found a clue, sort of. At least I have an idea.”

  Stonemover’s eyes were dark and puzzled. “But …” he said. “But why? The prophecy isn’t real, remember?”

  “That doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m not doing it because a prophecy told me to. If I can stop the war, I think I should. It would be nice if someone else would take care of it, but maybe that’s what everyone else is hoping, and maybe someone just has to do it.”

  “Hmm,” said Stonemover. “Somehow I suspect it won’t be that easy.”

  “Maybe it will be,” Sunny said brightly. “I’ll find the Eye of Onyx and give it to one of the queens, and that’s all it’ll take.”

  “Ah,” said Stonemover. “That’ll never work.”

  “I thought you might say that,” Sunny said. “Don’t worry, I’ll come back and tell you all about it when it totally does work.” She smiled at him, and she thought she saw the slightest movement of a maybe-smile twitching around the corners of his mouth.

  “I wish —” he said, then stopped.

  I don’t even know where to begin with wishing, Sunny thought. I wish the Talons hadn’t taken me? No, because then I wouldn’t have grown up with my friends. I wish I’d been born looking like a real SandWing? No, because then I wouldn’t be me, and I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.

  Maybe I wish the prophecy were real.

  I wish I knew for sure that this would work.

  Sunny shook out her wings. “Just wish me luck,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”

  She could sense Stonemover watching her gloomily as she headed up the passage, toward the light and the quiet rain. She wondered what her mother would think of him now, how much he had changed since they knew each other.

  None of my friends got to know both of their parents. I’m lucky they’re both still alive — and I’m lucky they’re not that bad.

  But now that I’ve met both of them, I know which one I want to be like.

  I’m not going to sit in a cave and mope because things aren’t the way I want them to be. I’m going to go make them happen, the way Thorn started the Outclaws and searched for me. If she’d given up, how would we ever have found each other? She’d have been just another dragon in the Scorpion Den, and maybe our paths would never have crossed.

  The passage ended in a shallow cave overlooking the mountain range below. The sun was rising in the east, which was also the direction of the rainforest. But the forest with the scavenger was to the west.

  Do I have time? What if Scarlet gets to the rainforest before I do?

  Sunny hesitated with her claws gripping the ledge and her wings outspread. Maybe Scarlet had been bluffing about knowing where the dragonets were. How would she guess they were in the rainforest, if no one else had found them there? Maybe she was only trying to scare Sunny.

  Well, she did a good job of that.

  Too bad I don’t have the Obsidian Mirror anymore. It’d be useful to know what Scarlet is doing. Maybe I should go warn my friends and then come back.

  But what if the scavenger leaves the ruins? This could be my only chance to find the Eye of Onyx and stop the war.

  It was a detour, but she had to risk it.

  She leaned forward and plummeted down the mountainside, soaring west toward the scavenger ruins and, she hoped, the missing treasure.

  * * *

  The burnt village was easy to spot from the air: a dark gash, stark and black against the surrounding greenery. Sunny spiraled toward it, studying the trees with her sharp eyes and looking for any movement that might be a scavenger.

  Nothing so far, but it was late afternoon and Sunny wasn’t even sure whether scavengers were normally nocturnal or preferred the day.

  She landed lightly in a cloud of ash that smelled like a wood fire. The ruins were still and deserted, and Sunny wondered uneasily if she had been wrong. What if the scavenger wasn’t here? Or what if she’d been here but was now gone, and Sunny had missed her?

  Think positive.

  She paced the entire perimeter of the den, searching every structure with even half a wall still standing. Every noise made her freeze and listen, her head cocked to the side, but it was always squirrels in the nearby trees or other little creatures scurrying in the underbrush. Which reminded her that she was hungry, so she caught a mouse and ate it, sitting on the old bell platform at the center of the village.

  Well. There was no one here now, but that didn’t mean she should give up. Maybe the scavenger would return later. Except she probably wouldn’t if she spotted a dragon prowling through the ruins … but then again, if she’d stolen the treasure from the SandWings, that meant she had to be fairly bold and reasonably stupid.

  Still, Sunny decided to hide, just in case.

  She found a tree with thick, overlapping leaves and wide branches and settled into the crook of the trunk, keeping a sharp eye on the burnt village. From here she had a good view of most of it, and she spent the rest of the day watching and waiting.

  By nightfall, as one of the moons climbed cheerily up the sky, Sunny had begun to doubt herself again. I should just go. I don’t have time to sit here — I have to get to my friends in the rainforest.

  Besides, if she comes during the night, I won’t be able to see her anyway. If only I could see in the dark like Tsunami.

  She dug her claws into the bark, forcing herself to be patient. If the Eye of Onyx was nearby, it was worth waiting for. Once she had that, she’d have a way to end the war.

  Which won’t stop Scarlet from wanting to kill us, of course.

  She stared hard at the village, now a shadowy mass of odd lumps and pointy shapes, overlaid with the silvery moonlight.

  Was that —?

  Something was moving in the forest outside the ruins. A small light bobbed up and down not far from the ground, blinking in and out as it went behind trees and bushes.

  Now her ears could pick out the sound of footsteps. They were very quiet, but here and there a twig snapped, and she recognized the noise of paws brushing through leaves.

  Softly she unwound her tail from the branch and slithered down the trunk. She crept silently through the dark village toward the light as it left the trees and floated toward a set of collapsed stone stairs, if Sunny remembered right from her earlier tour of the ruins.

  There were two of them.

  Two scavengers, one of them with short, fluffy hair — but the other one’s hair was lo
ng and she moved in a quick, confident way. Sunny was sure it was the same scavenger from her dream.

  She waited until they climbed onto the steps and sat down. They were warbling in low tones that sounded like some of the rainforest monkeys, and the one with the long hair sometimes waved her paws as if she were drawing a picture in the air.

  Flower did the same thing, Sunny remembered.

  Now, the trick would be to approach them and get the treasure without scaring them off — and without getting attacked. They didn’t look like they were carrying any sharp little weapons, but you never knew with scavengers, according to the scrolls. And if these two had stolen the treasure, that meant they’d killed Queen Oasis, so they could be very dangerous.

  She paused in the shadows for a moment, considering, and finally decided a direct approach was the only option.

  “Don’t run away,” she said, stepping out in front of them and spreading her wings.

  Both scavengers yelled with fright and promptly tried to run away.

  Sunny leaped into the air and landed in front of the scavenger from her dream. That was the one she wanted. “I said, don’t run away!” Sunny barked, even though she knew the scavenger couldn’t understand her. “Hey! Come back!” She flung her tail out and tripped the little creature as it bolted in another direction. “I won’t eat you, I promise!” She pounced and managed to trap the scavenger between her front talons.

  The second scavenger suddenly came running out of the ruins and threw something at her. This turned out to be the tiny lamp they’d been carrying, which bounced off Sunny’s scales but left a stinging burn where it hit.

  “OUCH!” Sunny roared. “All right, I might eat you if you keep doing that!” She swept her tail around and knocked the second scavenger over, then picked up the first scavenger and hopped a step back, growling.

  The scavenger between her claws was kicking and wriggling and being generally impossible. Sunny was trying really hard to hold it gently, but it was like hanging on to a moonbeam.

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