The brightest night, p.3
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       The Brightest Night, p.3

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  There was a long pause. The three dragons around the mirror all glanced at Sunny. She stared down at her claws.

  “WHAT?” Glory exploded. Her curl of smoke shot up to twice its previous size.

  “Yeah,” Clay said. “Isn’t that crazy? I guess that’s why Morrowseer wanted us to choose Blister as the next queen — he had this whole —”

  “I AM GOING TO BITE THAT DRAGON’S HEAD OFF AND STUFF HIM IN A VOLCANO,” Glory roared.

  “Too late,” Tsunami said. “Since that’s kind of already happened. The volcano part, I mean. He’s a pile of ashes now.”

  “Are you serious?” Glory demanded, talking over her. “The whole thing was made up? There’s no destiny, no wings of fire? No reason for us to be trapped in a cave our whole lives? No amazing mythical SkyWing who’s infinitely better than me? Absolutely no need for any of us after all?”

  “Hey, I’m mad, too,” Tsunami said. “But —”

  “LET’S GO BACK AND KILL HIM AGAIN.”

  “At least we don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Tsunami pointed out. “No destiny means we can do whatever we want. The Talons of Peace can go shove a puffer fish up their noses.”

  “But Sunny was really upset,” Clay said. “She was always kind of excited about the prophecy.”

  Kind of excited? Sunny lashed her tail. It wasn’t just some fun adventure I was looking forward to, Clay.

  “Oh, Sunny will be fine,” said Tsunami. “You know her. She’s always happy about everything. By tomorrow she’ll be smiling again, and by next week she probably won’t even remember the prophecy. She just needs something new to care about, like making Starflight better.”

  “Well, I can think of lots of ways to keep her busy,” Glory said. “For one, she can find me someone to yell at. I seriously cannot believe this. If I didn’t have to act like a queen right now, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh.” Her voice trailed off into muffled growling.

  Sunny glared at the Obsidian Mirror. This was exactly what she hated most about the way her friends saw her, although hearing them say it so bluntly made it much worse. As if acting happy means I don’t really care about anything. As if I just need to be distracted and I’ll forget about the whole point of our existence and all the dragons who are counting on us. As if my brain were the size of a blueberry, three MOONS.

  She caught Fierceteeth looking at her with a wry smirk.

  “Not too impressed with your intelligence, are they?” said the NightWing.

  Sunny scowled back at her.

  “It sounds like they like her,” said Strongwings dubiously. “But not like they think she’s particularly useful or important. I’m not sure they will give us the rainforest in exchange for her.”

  I’m not either, Sunny thought. Not that they should. But … what would they do to get me back? Anything? Or will they figure, “Hey, she’ll be fine as a hostage. Remember she’s always happy about everything. And that should be pretty distracting for her! Perfect!”?

  Perhaps I’ll just rescue myself, then. That’ll show them. And then I’ll fulfill the prophecy all by myself, too, and then they’ll see that it was real all along.

  She knew that was exactly the kind of thing her friends would roll their eyes at her for saying. But if no one else cared about their destiny anymore … if she was the only dragonet who still believed in it … what was she supposed to do?

  The NightWing holding the mirror tilted the glass so the smoke tendrils swirled together, and then he shot a small burst of fire across the surface. The smoke vanished, and the black glass went still.

  “There’s another option,” Preyhunter said, regarding the others with a sly expression. “Someone else who definitely does want this stunted SandWing — pretty badly, I’d guess.”

  Fierceteeth inhaled sharply. “You’re right. Three someones. We could sell her to the highest bidder — whoever’s willing to raise an army and take back the rainforest for us.”

  Uh-oh. Sunny was not about to be handed over to one of the SandWing queens. She’d spent enough time in cages and prisons already, thanks very much. She snuck a look at the leaning trees and tangled vines around them, searching for the closest gaps in the foliage.

  “Start with Blister,” Strongwings said, his dark eyes glinting in the moonlight. “She always pays her informants well, and she needs us the most.”

  What does she pay them with? Sunny wondered. All the SandWing royal treasure was stolen by the scavenger who killed Queen Oasis, wasn’t it? And if there’s any left, it would be in the SandWing stronghold, which Burn controls.

  “But Burn would love to have this weirdling in her collection,” argued Preyhunter. “From what I hear, a deformed dragonet would fit right in with the two-headed creatures and stuffed scavengers.”

  “I am not deformed,” Sunny said hotly, but none of them paid any attention to her.

  Queen Scarlet had been planning to hand Sunny over to Burn for this ominous “collection” as well. Sunny was quite sure she never wanted to see what else Burn had collected.

  “Who has the strongest army?” Fierceteeth asked. “Burn, right? And it would only take us a few days to get to her, if we fly straight over the mountains and don’t stop.” She flicked Strongwings in the snout as he opened it to speak. “Don’t ask stupid questions. We can’t use the tunnel to the Kingdom of Sand. They’ll be guarding — YEEEEOOOOW!”

  Fierceteeth’s howl of pain sent raindrops flying off the leaves around them as Sunny sank her teeth into the vulnerable spot on her tail. Strongwings lunged to grab Sunny, pried her jaws loose, and threw her aside.

  “Fierceteeth!” he cried, bending over the NightWing dragonet. “Are you all right?”

  Behind him, Sunny hit the ground rolling, sprang up with her wings spread, and shot into the trees.

  “Don’t let her get away!” Fierceteeth shrieked. “Strongwings! Catch her! Kill her if you have to!”

  Dangling wet vines smacked against Sunny’s snout as she flew up into the treetops. She remembered what she’d learned from the RainWings about rainforest flying and kept her wings tucked close. She couldn’t use her tail to swing from the trees like they did, but she was small enough to maneuver through narrow gaps and swerve quickly.

  But the three NightWings were right behind her, roaring angrily.

  I should lead them back to the tunnels and the others. Glory needs to know that they’re not loyal — she needs to lock them up and keep an eye on them.

  For how long? Sunny wondered. Forever? They’ll never be trustworthy; they’ll always be plotting to overthrow her. What do you do with dragons like that?

  One of her wings hit a branch as she flew past and a family of monkeys went leaping off into the trees, howling and chattering with alarm. She twisted to glance back and saw a bolt of fire engulf one of the monkeys as the NightWings attacked them, thinking it was her.

  They won’t be foolish enough to follow me all the way back, Sunny realized, even if I can keep ahead of them for that long. They won’t let themselves be caught.

  What will they do instead?

  She narrowly missed knocking herself out with a giant tree branch, ducking to avoid it at the last second.

  The same plan, just without me. They’ll go to Burn and tell her we’re here in the rainforest — where her army can find us easily.

  I need to hide. I need to think.

  She curled into a ball and threw herself into one of the dragonfruit trees, where the leaves were huge and overlapped one another like scales. Her momentum nearly carried her out the other side, but she was able to fling her talons out and hook onto the trunk, slamming her body into it. She froze in place, clinging to the rough bark, hoping the NightWings had lost sight of her in the dark.

  “By all the moons, Strongwings!” Fierceteeth swore from somewhere to Sunny’s left. “How could you let her escape?”

  “Sorry,” his voice mumbled.

  “She’s gone,” said Preyhunter. “We’ll never find her now — not without run
ning the risk of a RainWing spotting us.”

  “Let’s get out of here,” said Strongwings. “Before she brings back reinforcements.”

  “Talons and tails!” Fierceteeth hissed. “We needed her!”

  “We still have useful information for the next SandWing queen,” said Preyhunter. “They all want to know where the dragonets are. If we hurry, we’ll be the only ones selling that information, and we don’t need the SandWing as proof. We’re NightWings; everyone believes us.”

  “Makes sense. Let’s go,” Strongwings said.

  And with a flurry of wingbeats, the dragons headed for the dark open sky above the trees.

  Sunny’s claws were trembling with the effort to stay still. She took a deep breath.

  If I go back and tell the others, we can follow them.

  But by the time they listen to me — if they listen to me at all — the NightWings will be long gone.

  Sunny was used to the way her friends talked over her all the time. If she really wanted to be heard, she usually had to get Clay’s attention and have him make her suggestions for her. Which wasn’t fair — she had good ideas! — but her friends never expected her to have anything useful to say. They also didn’t trust her to keep secrets; they hadn’t even told her about it when they were all planning to escape their guardians. All they wanted was for her to be cheerful and supportive and agree with everything they wanted to do.

  Would Glory even listen if Sunny tried to tell her about the rogue NightWings? Wouldn’t she be too busy? What if she just rolled her eyes at Sunny, the way she often did?

  “I don’t want to be ‘distracted’ from worrying about the prophecy,” Sunny muttered. “I want to do something.”

  Like stopping the NightWings. I could follow them right now. I might be the only dragon who can stop them before they tell Burn where we are.

  Maybe if I do, my friends will see that I can do important things, and then maybe they’ll listen to me about the prophecy.

  She thought guiltily of Starflight and what he would think when he finally woke up and realized she wasn’t there, taking care of him.

  Then she thought of what her friends had said about her in the Obsidian Mirror, and she thought about Morrowseer’s smug, evil face, and she thought of all the dragons in Pyrrhia waiting for the dragonets of destiny to save them.

  I’m doing this. Even if I have to fulfill the prophecy alone, I will.

  Sunny clambered up through the branches and lifted off, following the black dragons into the night sky.

  * * *

  It was easier to follow the NightWings than Sunny would have expected. Her sharp eyes could catch the movement of their small, silver underwing scales flashing against the sky, and they weren’t making much effort to be quiet, either. Or maybe loud and flappy was how NightWings always flew.

  They also were slower than Sunny and got tired more quickly, so she had to be careful not to pass them accidentally, especially during their frequent rest stops.

  The sun was rising behind them when they reached the far edge of the rainforest, where the jungle shifted into sparser forest and more marshes, the outskirts of MudWing territory.

  The Claws of the Clouds mountains stood out sharply up ahead in the growing light, like a line of jagged, broken teeth. Most of the mountains in the southern part of the range were not as tall as the ones in the north, where the SkyWings lived.

  But there was one exception: Jade Mountain.

  The tallest mountain on the continent was easy to spot, and not just for its towering size. Sunny remembered the picture on the map of Pyrrhia they’d had underground. In reality, the two crags at the top looked even more like sharp fangs sticking up into the air. One of the scrolls had said that from certain approaches, the tip of the mountain looked exactly like the head of a snake, lunging out of the ground to attack the clouds.

  Jade Mountain. Sunny frowned. Someone had said something recently about Jade Mountain. Something she needed to remember. What was it?

  Nothing came to her as the sun slowly lit up the mountain’s fangs.

  Sunny had been worrying all night about how she would hide from the NightWings in the daylight. They didn’t seem to be watching behind them, but it would be hard to miss her golden scales once the sun was reflecting off them. She wished she had Glory’s camouflage scales. Really, any of her friends’ skills would be helpful, instead of her own total lack of powers.

  But as the sky grew pinker and brighter and then started shading from gray to blue, the three NightWings flew lower, their wings drooping, until finally they landed beside a small river.

  Sunny kept her distance, choosing the tallest tree she could find and tucking herself among the branches, close to the trunk. She fixed her eyes on where the NightWings had gone down and pricked her ears. She could hear their distant muttering, with Fierceteeth the most distinct. It sounded as if they were planning to sleep for as much of the day as they could and then fly on at dusk.

  They’ve been breathing volcanic ash and living on dying, rotting scraps, probably for their whole lives, Sunny thought. No wonder they’re not exactly in great shape.

  After a while, the trees stopped rustling and the dragon voices fell silent. A few minutes later, one of them — Sunny guessed Strongwings — started snoring like a herd of congested hippos.

  Now what do I do? Sunny wondered. This was a perfect opportunity to wreck their plans, if she could figure out how. Could I fly to the RainWing village and get back with reinforcements before they wake up?

  No. It would take me all day just to get someone to pay attention to me. I can do this myself. I have to.

  What would Tsunami do? Would she go down there and kill them?

  I don’t think I could do that — even if I could do that.

  Sunny sighed. A breeze whispered through the trees, curling under her wings as if inviting her to fly. Yesterday I wouldn’t have worried about what was going to happen next with Fierceteeth and the others. I’d be able to follow them knowing for sure that whatever I did would turn out all right.

  She hated Morrowseer for making her feel this way — this awful doubting feeling. He’d planted this worry, which she’d never had before, that maybe things wouldn’t be all right. That in fact she could die, and the war might go on endlessly, and perhaps there wasn’t a happy ending all planned out by the universe.

  She had to stop thinking about Morrowseer and the prophecy. It was like stabbing icicle-sharp claws between her scales every time she pictured the haughty black dragon sneering about his great lies.

  Stupid NightWings and their deceitful all-knowing high-and-mighty —

  Sunny sat up so fast she nearly fell off her tree branch.

  All-knowing.

  There was one thing she could do to slow the NightWings down.

  She could steal the Obsidian Mirror.

  This was one of those ideas that Sunny’s friends would totally ignore if she suggested it, but would love like crazy if it came from Clay or Tsunami. It was also something they would never, ever let her do herself. Too dangerous! Too risky! Send a dragon with fighting skills or camouflage scales. Not their undersized, cheerful, silly little sister.

  Well, I’m the only one here. And I know I can do it.

  She waited until the sun was halfway up the sky, and then she carefully worked her way closer, hopping from tree to tree and giving herself as much cover as she could. There were a few spots where she was exposed and her golden scales caught the light, but when she finally came to rest on a branch within sight of the NightWings, all three of them were sleeping soundly.

  Starflight said there were never any NightWing guards posted in their fortress. They’re used to being so isolated that no one could find them to attack them. It didn’t even occur to them to leave someone awake to keep watch.

  She snorted. They probably also figured no one would dare attack a group of amazing all-powerful NightWings.

  Fierceteeth was curled in the curve of Strongwings
s underbelly, with her tail draped over his and her head resting on his shoulder. Sunny had no idea how Fierceteeth could sleep through those tree-rattling snores.

  Preyhunter lay closer to the river, scrunched into a tight, tense ball, with his wings tucked close to him. In the daylight, Sunny could see how dull his scales were and how ill they all looked. Even Strongwings, who was built large and burly, looked underfed, and his snores rasped heavily as if his lungs and throat and nose were lined with claws.

  Sunny studied the ground around Preyhunter until she spotted a corner of black glass sticking out from under one of his wings. He was keeping the Obsidian Mirror very close.

  How can I get it without waking him up?

  She glanced at the other two again, then quietly slid down her tree until her talons touched the grass. The river bubbled over smooth gray rocks, not much more than a stream. Small purple wildflowers bent under her claws as Sunny tiptoed over to the sleeping NightWing.

  He looked miserable, even in his sleep. His jaw was clenched, his talons twitched defensively, and his forked black tongue flickered in and out as he muttered something to himself. When Sunny crouched beside him, she realized he was shivering.

  I guess it was pretty hot, living on a volcano. The air didn’t feel cold to her, here on the outskirts of the jungle, but perhaps he wasn’t used to it. Or perhaps he was sick.

  It felt strange to be so close to an unfamiliar NightWing. For the first six years of her life, Sunny had known exactly seven dragons: Clay, Tsunami, Starflight, Glory, and their three guardians, Webs, Dune, and Kestrel.

  Two of those seven dragons were dead now. She knew the guardians had never been particularly kind to the dragonets, but they were still the only parents she’d ever had, and she missed them. Her friends had never stopped to grieve for Dune and Kestrel — she wasn’t even sure they were sad about their deaths at all. She’d tried not to show how it upset her, but at night, curled up beside Clay, when she was sure he’d sleep through it, sometimes she’d let herself cry for them.

  She reached toward the sliver of obsidian, but before she even touched it, Preyhunter whimpered in his sleep, and she snatched her talons back.

 
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