The brightest night, p.16
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       The Brightest Night, p.16

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  And the other scavenger was already struggling back upright, probably to attack her again.

  Sunny looked around and spotted a building that hadn’t burned as badly as the rest of them. Two of the walls still stood, forming a corner made of heavy round stones. The walls were as tall as Sunny’s head — too tall for a little scavenger to jump off, unless they were more like frogs than Sunny thought they were.

  She deposited the first scavenger on top of the wall, then whipped around, seized the second scavenger, and stuck him up there as well. They both made little yelping sounds and clung to the stones.

  “There,” Sunny said. “Now you can’t run away.” She sat down and folded her wings back. “So. Where is the treasure?”

  Their big eyes stared back at her. Sunny reached for a branch, set it on fire, and stuck it upright in the ground, so she could see them better.

  The scavenger from her dream pointed at Sunny and chattered something at the other scavenger. If she were my pet, I could give her a name, Sunny thought. Maybe something like Holler, for all that noise she was making. And the other one could be Fluffy, for his hair.

  She smiled. Holler and Fluffy. Totally cute. But also maybe totally responsible for this whole war, if they were the ones who stole the treasure. They looked a little small to be treasure thieves, but then, all scavengers were too small to be trying something that idiotic.

  “The dreamvisitor,” Sunny said, cupping her front talons together as if she were holding a jewel. “The one you had in my dream. Where is it?” She tilted her head.

  Holler and Fluffy started arguing, or at least, it certainly looked that way, raising their voices and barking at each other, waving their paws.

  Sunny watched this for a moment, then stuck her claw between them and said, “All right, you’re adorable, but that’s enough. Dreamvisitor? Treasure? Now?” She rested her open talons between them.

  Holler hesitated, looking at Fluffy, and then reached into a pocket of the fabric that was draped around her. She pulled out the sapphire and dropped it into Sunny’s palm.

  “Whoa,” Sunny said. She hadn’t actually expected that to work. She raised the jewel to her eye and studied it. It certainly looked like the animus-touched gems from the scroll.

  “Thank you,” Sunny said to Holler. “Where’s the rest?”

  Holler blinked at her.

  “Um,” Sunny said. She took the jewel and put it on the ground, then drew a large circle around it in the ashes and mimed adding more jewels to the circle. Then she spread her wings around it and waved at the imaginary pile of treasure. “The rest of the treasure. That you stole. Where this came from.” She picked up the dreamvisitor and waved it again.

  Fluffy indicated the imaginary treasure and barked something at Holler. Holler ignored him, pointed over Sunny’s shoulder, and said something to her in what really sounded like an imperious tone of voice, if it wasn’t too crazy to think about scavengers trying to order dragons around.

  Sunny narrowed her eyes at Holler. Now that she had a moment to think about it, she could see that both scavengers were smaller than Flower. They didn’t seem entirely full-grown. Scavengers reached their full size before twenty years, didn’t they? So if the treasure had been stolen twenty years ago — surely it couldn’t have been these two who took it.

  But there was the dreamvisitor, real and heavy in her claws.

  Fluffy began chattering vigorously at Sunny. Holler grabbed his shoulder and tried to stop him, but he fended her off. He pointed at the imaginary pile of treasure and then at himself and then at Sunny. That. Me. You. And then he mimed picking something up and giving it to Sunny.

  Is he offering to bring me the treasure? Sunny’s hopes rose.

  Holler stamped her foot and snapped at him. He put his paws on his hips and yapped back.

  “I have an excellent idea,” Sunny announced. She gently scooped her claws around Fluffy and lifted him off the wall onto the ground. He yelled and flapped around a bit until she let him go and stepped back, and then he stopped, watching her warily. “You go get the rest of the treasure, and when you come give it to me, you can have Holler back.” Sunny tapped Holler lightly on the head.

  This took a while to sink in. Sunny pointed to the forest, held up the dreamvisitor, pointed to Fluffy and Holler, in several different combinations, until finally Fluffy took a few steps toward the trees, calling up to Holler. She yapped back at him, and he bobbed his fluffy, shaggy head, then hurried off into the darkness.

  “I hope this works,” Sunny said to Holler. “I’m not actually going to eat you or anything, even if he doesn’t come back.”

  “Yibble yibble yibble,” Holler said to Sunny, or at least, that’s what it sounded like.

  “You’re very cute, but you’re all a lot of trouble,” Sunny said.

  “Yibble! YIBBLE YIBBLE!” Holler shouted, pointing over Sunny’s shoulder again.

  Or maybe she was pointing at Sunny’s shoulder. Where Flower had been sitting in Sunny’s dream.

  “Oh,” Sunny said, thinking of Glory’s sloth. “Do you want a ride? Are you sure?” Sunny flicked her tail. “You won’t be scared?”

  “Yibble!” Holler demanded.

  “All right,” Sunny said, scooping her up. Holler shrieked, with a little more terror than Sunny thought was necessary, considering she’d asked for this. As Sunny set her on her shoulder, Holler grabbed Sunny’s neck and balanced herself across her scales, making startled yelping noises.

  “Hold on tight,” Sunny said, swinging her head around to check that Holler was firmly in place. She spread her wings and leaped into the sky.

  It was a clear, starry night; all the clouds from yesterday’s storm had blown away, and two of the moons were half full in the sky overhead. The rustling leaves below them looked like waves rippling on the sea.

  Sunny soared up in a long arc, swooped down across the forest, and veered back around again. The scavenger was quiet on her back, which was much preferable to shrieking.

  I hope Fluffy understood me, Sunny thought. I hope he hasn’t gone to get a pack of other scavengers with pointy things. Imagine if he really does come back with the missing treasure! I could be moments away from holding the Eye of Onyx.

  The Eye of Onyx, and power over the whole Kingdom of Sand.

  Sunny shivered from horns to tail and felt the scavenger clutch her neck tighter.

  Whoever holds the Eye could be queen. Even I could be queen. That would be one way to end the war — none of the three sisters wins, and I take the throne. Sunny, queen of the SandWings.

  Of course, that would leave three dragons with a single unified mission: kill me.

  It was scary, but it gave her an eerie thrill to think about, too. What if that was her real destiny — to rule the SandWings?

  She glanced down at the forest and saw movement near the torch she had lit. Fluffy was back! She tucked in her wings and dove toward the ruins, landing with a thump right in front of him.

  Fluffy jumped back with a yell. His eyes widened when he saw Holler on Sunny’s shoulder, and he launched into another shouting fit, practically hopping up and down. Holler slid off Sunny’s back and joined in.

  Sunny wasn’t interested in their little monkey squabble, though. She was interested in the bulging canvas sack that Fluffy was clutching.

  Reaching over Holler’s head, she deftly lifted the sack out of his paws. She turned toward the firelight and, fidgeting with excitement, emptied the contents of the sack onto the ground.

  Gold coins and jewels tumbled out and bounced through the ashes, clinking and clattering into a small pile. Most of the jewels were tiny — none as big as the dreamvisitor — and barely worth stealing. The biggest object was a statue of a dragon carved from blue stone, with emeralds for eyes. The Lazulite Dragon, Sunny guessed, remembering the scrolls about the missing treasure.

  She sifted through the pile, her heart sinking. She knew the answer at first glance, but she dug through it all, examining every
coin, just to be sure she was right.

  She was.

  The Eye of Onyx was not there.

  “This isn’t all of it!” Sunny cried, whipping around to face the scavengers. “Where’s the Eye? Why isn’t it here?”

  They stopped chattering immediately and jumped away from her, holding their paws up in the air. Fluffy pointed at the sack and yibble-yibbled frantically.

  “You must have it! Where else could it be?” Sunny started pacing back and forth. She could feel smoke rising from her snout, and she knew she was probably scaring the scavengers, but they didn’t run away. “I need the Eye of Onyx. It’s my one chance to end the war!” She stopped and faced them again. “How am I supposed to end the war without it?”

  “Yibble?” Holler said tentatively. “Yibble … yibble?”

  “Well said,” Sunny said to her. “That’s very helpful.” She sat down and frowned crossly at the pathetic pile of treasure.

  “Ribble yibble,” Fluffy said to Holler.

  “Urble YOBBLE,” she snapped back.

  “Someone else must have it,” Sunny said, thinking aloud. “If you had it, you’d have brought it to me, because you were worried about Holler. You wouldn’t keep the one thing I need, when I’m sure scavengers prefer shiny little things like all of this. So you don’t have the Eye of Onyx, which means it’s … somewhere else in Pyrrhia.”

  She sighed, and then stopped herself mid sigh so she wouldn’t sound like Stonemover.

  Her first theory was probably right, and some other dragon had stolen most of the treasure. Perhaps they had the Eye of Onyx and didn’t realize what it was or what it could do. But that didn’t help Sunny, who had no way to track down the real thief.

  She felt something touch her talon and looked down. Holler was standing in the curve of Sunny’s wing, patting her talon in a way that seemed to say “don’t worry” and “it’s not the end of the world.”

  “You’re brave and cute,” Sunny told her. “I wish I could keep you. If Glory can have a sloth, I don’t see why I can’t have a scavenger or two.” She glanced at Fluffy, who was edging closer, glancing up at her warily. “But it’s too dangerous. I’d feel terrible if one of you got hurt.”

  She gave Holler a thoughtful look. These small, breakable scavengers were brave enough to fight or ride a dragon who could eat them in three bites.

  Could I be that brave? Like, for instance … could I try to stop a war? Even if I don’t have a magical jewel or a mystical prophecy to back me up. Even if my friends decide not to help. Could I still do it?

  Isn’t it important enough?

  Why shouldn’t I try? So what if there’s no foretold destiny saying I have to. Shouldn’t I do it anyway, just because I want to?

  But how? She tapped her claws on the ground, thinking.

  “Yibble robble fnob?” Holler said. She pointed to Sunny’s shoulder again.

  “Sorry, Holler. I don’t have time to take you for another ride,” Sunny said regretfully. “I have to go.” She shook out her wings and reached to scoop all the treasure back into the sack. She was a little bit tempted to let the scavengers keep it, but she had a feeling she could find some use for it — giving it back to the SandWings, perhaps.

  “I’m going to find my friends and see if they’ll help me,” she informed Fluffy and Holler. “And then … then I’ve got a war to stop.”

  She patted them each gently on their heads before gathering her wings to take off. As she sailed into the sky, she looked back and saw them waving. She wondered if she’d ever see them again. Maybe she could come back and look for them after the war was over.

  The weather was with her this time, and she flew through the mountains much faster than she had on the way out, when she’d had to stop every time the NightWings rested or ate. She always ate light, so it didn’t take long for her to pause, catch and eat a squirrel or a lizard once a day, and keep flying.

  So it was only two days later when she cleared the mountains and saw the rainforest ahead of her, illuminated by the rising sun beyond it. It looked so vast and green and peaceful. Sunny found herself caught by a moment of longing, a wish that she could just dive into those leaves and stay there forever. There would be enough to do, helping Glory rule the rainforest and organize the NightWings. It was beautiful and there was always enough food, and the RainWings were easygoing dragons to share a tree with.

  The war would come here eventually, she told herself. Even the RainWings aren’t safe — we already know that from what the NightWings did to them. And between Scarlet and the three sisters looking for us, we probably aren’t safe anywhere either.

  No hiding in caves. That’s my promise to myself. No hiding at all. When the world is all wrong, I’m going to be a dragon who does something about it.

  Her nerves started to get the better of her the closer she got to the RainWing village, though. She kept picturing her friends’ faces — doubtful, kind but condescending, all “really? you, Sunny?” and “that is sweet, but now let’s be serious.” Her stomach was doing flips and spirals by the time she spotted the treehouses on the outskirts in the early afternoon, and she was almost tempted to turn around and fly away again.

  What if they’re mad at me? she suddenly thought with another stomach lurch. What if everyone’s furious at me for running off? It had occurred to her to use the dreamvisitor while she was traveling, but she’d decided against it — she wanted to explain everything to her friends face-to-face.

  A movement distracted her from her thoughts — something shifting, out of the corner of her eye, but when she looked she couldn’t see anything but dangling vines and bright orange flowers. Immediately she ducked and rolled, so the tranquilizer dart shot right past her and thudded into a tree trunk, startling several shiny blue frogs.

  “It’s me!” Sunny shouted, twisting to wave her claws at the leaves around her. “It’s Sunny! I’m Queen Glory’s friend!” She held out her talons and spread her wings wide, hoping one of the hidden RainWings would remember her.

  A face materialized on a nearby branch, his scales shifting from brown and green to dark purple. The dragon blinked a few times, looking more wary than most RainWings Sunny had ever met.

  “The queen was looking for a little gold dragon,” said a voice behind Sunny, and another dragon emerged, this one shifting to the clementine orange of the flowers. “This could be her.”

  “Shouldn’t we knock her out anyway?” asked the purple dragon. “Just to be safe? You know the queen keeps telling us to be more careful.”

  “She means about the NightWings,” said the orange dragon blithely. “This one’s not a NightWing. I’m sure she’s fine.”

  On the one talon, Sunny certainly didn’t want to be shot with a dart. She wanted to be wide-awake when she saw her friends again. On the other talon, she was afraid she could imagine this exact conversation if, say, a smoldering vengeful SkyWing happened to show up in the rainforest looking for them. “Oh, she’s not a NightWing? Well then, let’s take her straight to the dragonets, no worries.”

  “I am Glory’s friend,” she promised them, deciding to worry about Scarlet later. “I need to see her.”

  “The queen … let’s see, she might be in the audience treehouse,” said the orange dragon thoughtfully.

  “Or the healers’ hut,” said the purple dragon. “She’s there a lot.”

  “Or visiting the NightWing camp.”

  “Or checking on the progress of the school.”

  “Or reviewing —”

  “All right,” Sunny interrupted. “I’ll just look for her. Thank you.”

  They both flicked their tails and bobbed their heads, and their scales immediately began shifting back to camouflage as Sunny flew on.

  The healers’ hut, she decided. So I can see Starflight.

  But before she got there, she spotted the mahogany-brown scales of a MudWing stretched out on one of the sleeping platforms.

  “Clay!” she yelped happily. She barreled up to
him and nearly flung her wings around him before she realized it wasn’t Clay at all. It was some other MudWing dragonet, who jumped back with a startled expression and hid something behind his wings.

  “Whoa,” Sunny said, skidding to a stop on the wood. “Who are you?”

  “Who are you?” he responded rudely.

  Sunny usually liked everybody, at least at first, but something about this dragon immediately rubbed her the wrong way. “Where’s Clay?” she asked.

  “How should I know?” he demanded.

  Sunny frowned at him, then turned to fly away. If he didn’t want to be helpful, she didn’t need to bother with him.

  “Hey!” he called. “Come back!”

  Sunny ignored him. She had noticed the angle of the sunlight and realized that it was the RainWing sun time, when most of them would be sleeping high up in the treetops, recharging their scales. She wondered if Glory was up there, too, or if she ever let herself sleep.

  Just then she spotted the healers’ hut — and coming out of it, opening his wings to fly, was Clay, definitely Clay this time, every wonderful brown scale of him.

  Sunny dove into his wings, nearly knocking him backward, except that he was big enough to catch her. He made an “oof!” noise and then realized who she was.

  “Sunny!” he roared. “It’s you! You’re alive! You’re all right!” He seized her and swung her around, her tail flying out behind her, and then quickly put her down. “Are you all right?” he asked anxiously. He touched her wings and checked her talons. “We thought something terrible had happened to you. We’ve been searching and searching. Come, come in.” He dragged her into the hut before she could say anything. “Starflight! Sunny’s back!”

  Two black dragons turned their heads in unison toward the door. Sunny recognized Fatespeaker, the NightWing who had been one of the alternate dragonets, raised by the Talons in case they needed a spare set to fulfill the prophecy. She was crouched beside a nest of leaves, where Starflight was lying with his wings spread out.

  Sunny flinched at the sight of the burns all along Starflight’s dark scales. Some kind of silvery ointment glistened over the wounds, and she saw a little of it on Fatespeaker’s talons as well, as if she’d been helping to put it on.

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