The brightest night, p.22
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       The Brightest Night, p.22

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Sunny whirled and saw a mass of dragons arriving from the east. Blister and her forces, she thought hopefully. She looked north and spotted flashing silver scales. Please let that be Blaze with the IceWings.

  “It’s possible I won’t kill you,” Burn said. “After all, you’ve brought me my sisters to kill, which is more help than any other dragons have been. Then again, you’re very annoying.”

  “This is not about killing,” Sunny said. The sounds of wingbeats were getting closer, so she turned to watch Blister land next to the Queen Oasis monument. Blister sank her talons into the sand for a moment, shooting a deadly look up at the obelisk.

  Blaze and Queen Glacier landed a moment later, off to Sunny’s left. Blaze eyed her sisters nervously, staying close to the IceWing’s side.

  Blister slithered out of the sand and paced slowly between Sunny and Clay, her snakelike gaze pinned on Burn as she circled her older sister.

  “You’re still alive,” Blister remarked in a cold, calm voice. “That’s a pity.” She paused and narrowed her eyes at the dragonets. “I was hoping you’d have my sisters dead before I got here.”

  “What?” Burn snarled. “They’ve chosen me as queen, not you.”

  “No way!” Blaze cried, then hurriedly backed into Glacier as her sisters whipped their heads toward her. “They picked me! They told me to come here!”

  “We haven’t chosen any of you,” Sunny said firmly. “And we’re definitely not killing any of you.”

  “Unless we have to,” Glory observed. “Feel free to provoke us.”

  “Shh,” Clay said, nudging her.

  “We’re here to find a peaceful solution,” Sunny announced. “Either you three decide among you, peacefully, who’s going to be queen, or everyone else here will decide for you. No more armies. No more dead dragons.”

  Burn barked a harsh, disbelieving laugh. “I have a better idea,” she snarled. “First I kill my sisters, and then I kill all of you, and then I stuff you and spend the next hundred years telling your dead face about peaceful solutions.”

  Out of the corner of her eye, Sunny saw a flurry of movement from the part of the wall where Thorn was perched. “No one is going to let you do that,” she said to Burn, trying to sound much braver than she felt.

  “In fact,” Blister interjected suddenly, “I’ve already made a gesture of peace. Didn’t you get my present, Burn?”

  An eerie silence fell for a moment as Burn stared down at her.

  “I was thinking,” Blister hissed into the stillness, “that this war has gone on too long. I thought if I sent you a gift … something I know you’ve always wanted … that perhaps we could … mend fences and reunite the family.” She bared her teeth at the palace entrance and Sunny spotted Smolder just inside the doorway, where she’d first seen him.

  “Aha,” Burn snarled. “That was from you. Smolder, bring me the box.”

  “Now?” he said.

  “Don’t argue with me,” she growled, and he vanished into the palace.

  A gift? A gesture of peace — reuniting the family? That doesn’t sound like Blister. Sunny flicked her tail anxiously. Or is she really willing to stand down and let Burn be queen?

  Smolder returned a few moments later, carrying the box that Sunny had seen on the top floor of the weirdling tower, when she’d been chained up there. As he set it down in front of Burn, it let out a malevolent hiss.

  “Burn, be careful,” Sunny said. She had a horrible sinking feeling in her chest, and she really didn’t like the look on Blister’s face. “I — I think this might be a trick.”

  “Of course it is,” Burn said. “Especially if it’s from my clever little sister. Sending me a present, thinking I’ll open it without any suspicion. As if I don’t recognize the hiss of the dragonbite viper when I hear it.”

  “It’s not a trick,” Blister said coolly. “I know you’ve always wanted one for your collection.”

  “Dragonbite viper?” Fatespeaker whispered to Starflight.

  “Rare and deadly,” he whispered back. “The only snake in Pyrrhia that can kill a dragon with one bite.” He shifted nervously on his talons. “If that’s really what’s in there…. I hope that’s not really what’s in there.”

  “Well, the trick’s on you,” Burn said. She sank her claws into the top of the box and ripped it off with a vicious tearing sound. Fast as lightning, her talons shot into the box and lifted out a writhing, hissing rope of scaly fury.

  The snake’s head was pinned between Burn’s claws so it couldn’t bite her. Its whole body wriggled and lashed like the eels attacking in the SeaWing prison.

  “I know your sick, twisted mind. You thought this would kill me,” Burn snarled at Blister. “So it’ll be very poetic when it kills you instead.” She took a step toward her sister and then stopped suddenly, looking down.

  “Oh,” Blister said, “I got you two. Did I leave out that part?”

  A second dragonbite viper lunged out of the box and sank its teeth into Burn’s ankle. Its venomous fangs slid like shards of ice right between her scales.

  The screaming seemed to come from everywhere at once. Blaze was probably screaming the loudest, shrieking and flapping her wings as if she were the one who’d been bitten. All along the walls, dragons were pushing and yelling and leaning in to get a better look or taking off into the sky to get as far away from the snakes as possible.

  Burn stamped one foot down on the second snake, crushing it, but it was too late. Black veins were shooting up her leg and spreading through her scales.

  “What’s happening?” Starflight asked, reaching out for Sunny.

  Sunny touched his wing with her own. “There was a second snake in the box — and it bit Burn.” This was Blister’s plan — the one I overheard her talking about in the mirror. Send Burn something she really wants and figure out a way for it to kill her. Clever and evil and sinister. She looked over at Blister, who was watching her sister’s death throes with an enthralled, smug smile on her face.

  We can’t let her be queen. All of Pyrrhia would be in danger if Blister were queen.

  But what else can we do? She’s not going to accept Blaze on the throne instead … and it looks like this is the end for Burn.

  Burn let out a furious roar and collapsed to the ground with a crash that shook the earth. Her wings twitched and convulsed as if they were possessed. She clawed at the air, reaching for Blister.

  “I’ll kill you,” she snarled. “I’ll claw that — I’ll — it hurts — stop it, stop the —” She roared again, howling her agony at the sky.

  Her ankle was entirely black now, the claws curling in and shriveling. The venom marched up toward her heart, fast and unstoppable.

  “Is there anything we can do?” Sunny asked. “Clay? Starflight?”

  Starflight shook his head mutely.

  Burn rolled onto her back, wheezing as the black tendrils looped together in the center of her chest. Her arm flopped to the ground, her talons opened, and the first snake slithered loose onto the stones of the courtyard.

  “The viper!” Blaze shrieked. “It’s going to kill us!”

  Pandemonium erupted along the walls.

  “Fly!” screamed several dragons.

  “Kill it!” roared others. “Or it will kill us all!”

  Blister was in the air already, hovering over them and watching gleefully as the snake shot toward the dragonets. It moved like lightning, zigzagging across the stones faster than flight.

  “Up! Up! Up!” Tsunami shouted, shoving at her friends.

  “Starflight!” Fatespeaker screamed.

  Sunny whirled and saw Starflight stumble forward, his wings unfolding but slowly, too slowly. His talons reached out, trying to orient himself. The snake was nearly at his feet already.

  Sunny and Fatespeaker reached him at the same time, grabbing his forearms and trying to lift him bodily into the sky. But they were both small, and Starflight was heavy and confused and unwieldy. His tail thwacked the grou
nd and his wings nearly overbalanced them all as they tried to struggle into the air.

  The viper hissed and it sounded as if it was coming from inside Sunny’s skull.

  It’s going to get one of us, Sunny realized with a jolt of horror. Let it be me. Please don’t let Starflight die.

  And then something hit her, like a boulder slamming into all of them. Sunny, Fatespeaker, and Starflight tumbled backward, a tangle of wings and tails catapulted across the courtyard. Sunny was flung loose from the others and skidded across the sand, crashing finally into the Queen Oasis obelisk.

  She shoved herself back up, dizzy and disoriented. What had happened? Had someone pushed them? Did the snake bite anyone? Was Starflight all right?

  Her head took a moment to clear, and then she realized there was a dragon lying on the stones where she’d been standing a moment before. The dragon who’d slammed into them; the dragon who’d saved their lives.

  It was Clay.

  “No!” Sunny screamed.

  “Sunny! Stay back! The viper’s still alive!” Deathbringer yelled from overhead. She realized that he was holding Glory in the air, and the RainWing queen was fighting to get away.

  But no one was holding her back, and she didn’t care about the snake. She didn’t care if she did get bitten; she wasn’t going to leave Clay lying there, dying.

  She scrambled across the courtyard and threw her wings over him, shaking him with her talons. “Clay!” she yelled. “Clay!”

  He looked dazed but his eyes were open. Maybe the snake had missed him. She couldn’t see it anywhere. Maybe —

  “Ow,” Clay said, trying to sit up. “Ow, I — my leg — wow, that really hurts —” He pressed his claws to his head and looked as if he might pass out.

  And then Sunny saw the wound — the fang marks in the flesh of Clay’s right thigh. A black starburst had already appeared around the two holes, pulsing bigger and bigger across his warm brown scales.

  “Clay.” Sunny started to cry. “Please don’t die.”

  “I’m — I’m, uh — open to suggestions,” he said with a small, breathless laugh. He reached toward his leg then flinched back, gritting his teeth in pain.

  Tsunami thumped down on his other side and let out a gasp at the sight of the snake bite. She twisted to look at the courtyard around them. “Where’s the snake?” she said. “Where did it go?”

  “I don’t know,” Sunny said. She could barely see through her tears. She leaned against Clay, trying to send all the warmth from her scales into him.

  “Hey, it’s all right,” Clay said, although his claws were clenched and his wings were starting to shudder. “It’s not such a bad destiny, Sunny. I’d die to save you and Starflight over and over if I had to.” His voice caught on the last few words and he stopped, breathing hard.

  “I order you not to die,” Tsunami said, grabbing his shoulder. “Clay, stop, STOP IT. Stop dying RIGHT NOW.” Her normally bossy voice was full of panic.

  “Ow!” Deathbringer roared from up in the sky, and a moment later, Glory crash-landed into Sunny.

  “No, no, no,” Glory said, looking at the growing burst of black. Her scales had turned lily-green and white — the colors of fear and panic and pain. “No, we have to be able to stop this. There must be something we can do. Starflight!” she bellowed. “Think! How do you stop a dragonbite viper’s poison? The scrolls must have said something,” she muttered, touching Clay’s scales. He winced as her claws brushed the blackened area. “Why can’t I remember anything? Why is it spreading so fast?”

  Sunny looked around for the first time and realized that the dragons along the walls had fallen completely silent, staring at them. Blister and Blaze were watching, too, one with cold interest and the other with horror.

  Over by the wall, Starflight was trying to find them, stumbling forward with his claws held out, although Fatespeaker was trying to drag him back.

  And … there was something hurtling out of the sky toward them. Something that blazed fiery orange and trailed smoke. A dragon with burning scales.

  “Out of the way!” Peril yelled. “Sunny! Get everyone out of the way!”

  Tsunami reacted first, leaping over Clay to shove Sunny and Glory back. The heat from Peril’s scales swept over them as the SkyWing hit the ground and nearly slid into Clay.

  “You can’t die!” Peril yelled at him. “I won’t let you!”

  “Don’t —” Tsunami started forward. “What are you —?”

  “I’m burning out the poison,” Peril said, and she stabbed her smoldering claws straight into the center of the black starburst on Clay’s leg.

  With a roar of crazed agony, Clay surged up as though he was trying to fly away. Tsunami, Glory, and Sunny flung themselves at him and pinned him down, but he was bigger and stronger and fighting hard.

  “Deathbringer, get down here!” Glory yelled, and a moment later the NightWing was there, adding his weight to theirs.

  Sunny grabbed Clay’s front talons in hers and held on for dear life. “Clay, it’s all right! She’s helping you!”

  But Clay was in too much pain to hear her. He jerked and thrashed, his howls digging into Sunny’s heart like IceWing claws. She closed her eyes and leaned into him. The awful smell of melting scales and burning flesh assailed her, as if she were burying her snout in the NightWing volcano.

  She felt more dragons join them, holding down Clay’s wings and keeping his claws away from Peril. When she opened her eyes again, it was who she expected: Riptide and Starflight — and also who she didn’t: Thorn, clasping Sunny and Clay’s talons between her own.

  “Mother,” she whispered with relief, resting her head against the warm SandWing scales.

  “This should have been me,” Thorn said, “but I couldn’t get to you in time.”

  Sunny shook her head and chanced a look at Clay’s leg. Peril still had her talons buried in his scales, carving out everything that had been touched by the black venom. There was a scorched, gaping, bleeding hole in Clay’s thigh and Sunny had to look away quickly before she threw up.

  “I’m not sure he can survive this,” Thorn whispered gently to Sunny. “That big of a burn …”

  “He can,” Sunny said fiercely. “Maybe no one else could, but he can.”

  “Fireproof scales,” Starflight said, across from them.

  “Oh. I hope …” Thorn said, and then she spread her wing around Sunny’s back and pulled her close, falling silent.

  A few moments later, Peril said, “That’s all of it,” in an exhausted voice, and stepped back. “I think. It better be. I don’t see any more venom, do you?” she asked Sunny. “Clay? Clay? Are you all right?”

  Clay had passed out. His wings were limp and his head lolled to the side when Riptide let go of it.

  “Is he all right?” Peril said, her voice rising. “Tell me it worked!”

  “It worked,” Glory said. She rested her talons on Clay’s chest, which was rising and falling evenly.

  The black venom had stopped spreading; Peril had burned it all out of him. Sunny could see his fireproof scales trying to fix themselves, warm brown smoothing over the scorched spots. But the hole Peril had had to gouge out of his leg was too big for the scales to knit over. Clay was going to be scarred and probably limping for life.

  But he was alive. He’d survived the snakebite. That was all that mattered.

  “Thank you,” Sunny said to Peril. She automatically reached to hug Peril, but the SkyWing jumped back before they could touch.

  “Seriously,” Tsunami said, rubbing her face with her talons and sitting back. “You — that — I don’t know what to say.”

  Glory had her tail curled around her talons and was holding her wings in close as wave after wave of odd colors spread through her scales. Deathbringer put one wing around her, gently, and she let him.

  “Maybe,” Clay mumbled, and they all leaned closer to hear him. “Maybe Peril is the wings of fire.” He lapsed back into unconsciousness.

  Sunny saw the nervously delighted expression on Peril’s face and felt as if her heart might explode.

  The NightWings just made that up — “wings of fire” was nothing but a pretty phrase to them. But it is something, and it’s more than Peril’s burning scales. Peril helped us because Clay is wonderful. He was kind to her when no one else ever was, and he believed in her, no matter what she’d done. His heart is the real wings of fire.

  She glanced around at her friends. Clay’s heart, Tsunami’s courage, Glory’s determination, Starflight’s loyalty … I think the wings of fire are inside all of us, inside every dragon. Maybe you just have to reach inside and find it.

  A sinister hiss interrupted her thoughts, and she whirled around as a jolt of fear ran through her.

  The dragonbite viper was slithering up between two of the stones, eyeing the group of dragonets with a dark, cold, lidless glare.

  Peril leaped forward and smashed her talons down on it. The snake flailed horribly for a moment, and then crumpled into a shriveled, burnt-out husk.

  “Ah, well,” said Blister’s voice, behind them. “That would have been convenient, killing all my enemies with one snake, so to speak.”

  Blister flicked her tail up and studied them for a long moment as they turned to face her. Tsunami squared her shoulders and glared back at her, talons clenched as if she was ready to fight.

  “But I think I’ll deal with you later,” Blister said. Her eyes shifted toward the hordes of gathered dragons and Sunny realized that Blister wasn’t sure what they would do. If Blister tried to kill the prophecy dragonets, right here in front of everybody … would they stop her? How would they all react?

  “For now,” Blister said, “I’m finally just one step away from the throne that is rightfully mine. And that step, of course —” She turned to her sister, Blaze, who cowered back against the IceWing queen.

  “Is killing you.”

  “You don’t have to kill her,” Sunny protested as Blister advanced on Blaze.

  “Perhaps,” Blister said over her shoulder. “But I certainly want to.”

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