The brightest night, p.4
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       The Brightest Night, p.4

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  None of the dragons moved for a long moment.

  Maybe this is a bad idea. I could make things worse if I get myself caught.

  But if she could get the mirror away from them, that would be one less weapon in their claws. They’d be flying blind, with no idea what Glory was planning and no way to know if Burn would receive them with open wings. Not to mention Sunny could probably use that mirror herself.

  She reached out again and noticed the trembling that shuddered through Preyhunter’s scales. Maybe he wasn’t cold. Maybe it was a nightmare.

  Maybe he’s dreaming about the terrible things he’s done. Or perhaps he’s dreaming about the volcano exploding.

  She hesitated, and then unfolded one of her wings, spreading it gently over his back. She was too small to cover him completely, but the warmth that radiated from her scales spread as far over him as she could reach. She held her breath, trying not to touch him.

  Preyhunter let out a long, shuddering sigh, and then the shivering stopped. He took another deep breath, and Sunny saw the tension in his snout, jaws, and neck relax. A ripple went through his wings and his claws unclenched. He stopped muttering, and even his closed eyes seemed to smooth over, as if he were shifting into a deeper, calmer sleep.

  Sunny waited a long moment, feeling sorry for this dragon even though she really didn’t want to. She couldn’t help wondering what she herself might have been like if she’d grown up on the NightWing island. Desperate and sad? Mean and hungry?

  She reached for the mirror again, and suddenly Preyhunter spoke.

  “Please.”

  Sunny froze. His eyes were still closed. Across the clearing, Fierceteeth shifted her wings and coughed.

  “Please don’t make me,” Preyhunter said, more softly. “Mother, it’s awful.”

  A stab of sympathy shot through Sunny, and she curled her tail in closer. Remember what he’s planning and what he said and what he’s done. But it was hard not to imagine herself in his scales.

  Gently she used her front talons to slide the mirror out from under his wing. Her warmth had relaxed his grip on it, so he wasn’t clutching it so tightly, and it only took a moment until it was resting coldly between her claws. The obsidian felt thin, like a layer of ice, and the edges were sharp as teeth. Sunny could see her distorted reflection in the dark glass.

  She took a careful step back, then another, and folded her wings back in. Preyhunter made a lost, mournful noise, and his claws twitched as if he were trying to pull the warmth back into him.

  Will they guess I’m the one who stole it? What if they come looking for me?

  She glanced around the clearing. A large, flat gray boulder took up most of the ground between the three dragons, with bright yellow dandelions dotting the edges like topaz gemstones around a pendant.

  I’ll leave them a message…. Something that won’t sound like me. Maybe something that’ll scare them.

  Her own heart was drumming frantically against her ribs like a caged bird. She wanted to get out of there before any of them woke up. But she had a strong feeling that there was something to this idea.

  She dipped a claw in the dark red mud that lined the river and wrote on the boulder, in tall, jagged letters:

  TURN BACK. YOU FLY TOWARD YOUR DEATH.

  Totally spooky, she thought with satisfaction. It even looked like maybe it could have been written in blood. That should at least creep them out, even if it doesn’t send them scurrying back to the rainforest.

  Sunny took a step back, and then suddenly Strongwings let out the loudest snore yet, and Fierceteeth rolled over to swat him with her wing.

  “Shut your noisy snout or so help me I will rip it off with my claws!” she hollered.

  Sunny bolted into the sky and didn’t stop flying until she reached the dense green canopy of the jungle again.

  When she finally glanced back, there was no movement from the NightWings’ copse of trees. Strongwings had even started snoring again.

  I guess she was yelling at him in her sleep. Or she went right back to sleep and didn’t notice me there.

  Sunny carefully tucked the mirror under one wing and used her talons to clamber up and along the trees until she found a spot where the leaves overlapped so thickly it was like a small green cave around her. She studied the mirror. What had Preyhunter done to activate it?

  “Starflight,” she said softly to the cold obsidian, and then she breathed a small plume of smoke across the surface.

  As it had before, the smoke twined and twisted around the mirror, then vanished. Sunny could feel the mirror thrumming faintly between her claws. It was sort of horrible — a sick, slithering sensation through her blood, as if it were pulling something out of Sunny’s heart.

  A faint black tendril of smoke curled up from the center of the mirror, barely visible in the green-tinted sunshine. It didn’t speak, but when Sunny leaned closer, she could hear the faint sound of breath going in and out.

  He’s alive.

  Two pale blue wisps of smoke drifted by, close to the edge of the mirror.

  “I’ve never seen anything like it,” whispered one.

  “The queen said this is what ‘fire’ can do,” murmured the other. “It seems almost as bad as venom, if you ask me.”

  From their voices, Sunny guessed they were two of the healer RainWings she’d befriended while she was helping take care of Webs. RainWing healers were odd, specializing mostly in saying comforting things and offering more fruit to eat. But occasionally they were really specifically knowledgeable, like about jaguar bites, or what to do if you ate too many mangoes, or how to make salves for tails that had been used for swinging from rough branches one too many times.

  “I’d rather be Kinkajou than him right now,” said the first. “She’s healing well.”

  “Did you see the messenger who was here before?” The second curl of blue smoke moved, looping around the black smoke as if checking on it, and then sliding back to the first. “That big brown dragon sent a message for Sunny. I wasn’t sure whether to tell him we haven’t seen her. I don’t want to worry the queen when she has so many NightWings to deal with.”

  “I say don’t start a panic. She’s around somewhere.”

  This was similar to the RainWings’ attitude toward their own missing dragons, some of which had been gone as long as a year by the time Glory rescued them. Well, that’s fine, Sunny thought. I don’t need or want my friends looking for me. They have enough to do.

  The black smoke stirred, as if the faintest breath of wind had touched it. “Sunny?” Starflight whispered.

  But … poor Starflight. She curled her tail in around her talons and sighed.

  “Shh, we woke him by talking about her,” admonished the first healer. “Let’s get him another sleeping dart.”

  Sunny cleared the mirror and held it between her claws for a moment. She disliked it more and more the longer she held it. It had a chilling wrongness to it, like the tunnels, that made her scales feel as if invisible spiders were crawling all over her.

  But there were things she needed to know — like what the warring SandWing queens were plotting. The Obsidian Mirror could help her figure out if any of them was an immediate threat to Sunny’s friends.

  I should at least try one of them. The most dangerous one. She hesitated, and then whispered, “Blister,” to the dark glass.

  The pale yellow twist of smoke that rose from the center this time had the same chilling stillness that Blister had; it barely even moved in the breeze.

  “Be careful!” it hissed suddenly, and Sunny flinched away from the mirror. It was unsettling to hear Blister’s voice as if she were on the next branch over. “Close it up. Is he ready to go? All right, give him his gold, and tell him I’ll be there in a moment with final instructions.” The smoke dipped for a moment, then turned as another small twister touched down. “Anything?”

  “No sign of any SeaWings, Your Majesty,” said the new arrival. “We waited half the day.”
<
br />   Blister hissed, low and long. “I’ll win this war without them, then,” she growled. “Burn will be dead within a fortnight, and then I’ll kill Blaze with my own talons, and the SeaWings will get nothing when they come slithering out of the ocean begging for forgiveness. They’ll find my claws and the entire force of the SandWing army waiting instead. Coral has no idea what vengeance can really look like. Don’t touch that,” she snapped abruptly.

  “Sorry, Your Majesty. What —”

  “It’s my plan to end this war once and for all,” Blister said in a dark voice. “Without the SeaWings or the NightWings. So stay away from it. Any word from our spies in the Ice Kingdom?”

  “No sign of the dragonets yet. Perhaps —”

  “I know,” Blister snapped. “They could be somewhere else.” There was the sound of paper crackling. “I’ve been considering the possibilities. Hiding in the rainforest, perhaps.”

  Sunny felt a chill down her spine.

  “Or perhaps they’re dead,” said the soldier. “Especially if they tried going to the rainforest, from what I’ve heard about that place.”

  “Hmmm,” Blister mused. “Dead. They’d never do anything so convenient for me. Even with a NightWing assassin after them, supposedly, if anything Morrowseer says can be trusted. Speaking of dragons I’m going to dismember as soon as I get my claws on them.”

  She doesn’t know he’s dead — how could she? Sunny gripped the branch below her, feeling terror shudder through her scales. At least she’s not searching the rainforest yet.

  “It doesn’t matter,” said Blister, her voice suddenly brisk. “I’m done with prophecies. I mean, I’ll still kill the dragonets when I find them, but first I have a war to win. My new plan will take care of Burn — and then the stronghold will fall, and the throne will be mine.” There was a chilling rattling sound, and the twist of smoke seemed to get a little darker.

  “How —” began the soldier.

  But just then Sunny heard a roar from the NightWings’ clearing.

  Uh-oh.

  She wanted to know what Blister’s plan was — but she needed to know how the three NightWings were reacting, and if she was in danger right now. She cleared the mirror quickly, whispered “Fierceteeth” to it, then breathed smoke across it again.

  Immediately, three curls of black smoke popped up on the glass, rushing around one another like small tornadoes.

  “How could you lose it?” Fierceteeth’s voice snarled.

  “I didn’t lose it,” Preyhunter snapped. “Someone stole it.”

  “Right out from under your snout?” Fierceteeth growled. “How, exactly?”

  “I don’t know!” Preyhunter yelled.

  “I do,” said a trembling voice that barely sounded like Strongwings. “It was the Darkstalker.”

  Sunny tilted her head toward the mirror. What’s the Darkstalker?

  What could be scary enough to terrify a dragon as big as Strongwings?

  The other two NightWings didn’t respond for a long moment. Finally, Fierceteeth hissed, “That’s just a ghost story for little dragonets. There’s no Darkstalker, or if there ever was, we killed him centuries ago.”

  “No, he’s real,” Strongwings said, edging toward hysteria. “Everyone knows he’s still out there somewhere, and now he’s found us. Look at this message! We’re going to die!”

  “It could have been someone who wants us to think he’s the Darkstalker,” Preyhunter said dubiously.

  “But who else would know we had the mirror? Who else would know that we’re flying to our death?”

  “Snap out of it, Strongwings,” Fierceteeth barked. “Someone is trying to scare us, that’s all. You know the story. The Darkstalker, if he did exist, died a long time ago.”

  “No. He couldn’t die,” Strongwings whispered. “They buried him, but they always knew he’d come back one day.”

  Sunny had never heard of this mythical dragon. It must be a NightWing legend. Lucky for me. She hadn’t expected to tap into an old superstition.

  “Maybe it was that SandWing,” Fierceteeth said, then immediately let out a dismissive snort. “No, that stunted salamander wouldn’t have the teeth for something like this. She must have gone back and told someone we had the mirror. I bet this was Deathbringer. Seems like something he would do, from what I’ve heard of him.”

  Sunny was obscurely flattered and offended at the same time. She flicked her tongue at the dark glass.

  “But Deathbringer would just kill us,” argued Preyhunter. “Strongwings is right about one thing — this is what the Darkstalker does, according to the stories. He plays with his prey for days, making sure they’re nearly paralyzed with terror before he strikes.”

  “Yes, exactly,” Strongwings said. “He’ll come back the next time we sleep and kill just one of us, or —”

  “So let’s not be paralyzed with terror,” Fierceteeth snarled. “Let’s go. The Kingdom of Sand is on the other side of those mountains. We can be there in a few days if we stop moaning and clutching our tails. Come on.” Her smoke tendril was nearly interwoven with Strongwings’s, as if she were trying to heave him into the sky with brute force.

  “But the message —”

  “We can’t go back,” Fierceteeth said. “Glory will kill us more definitely than any old NightWing animus ghost, and if she doesn’t, we’ll be the RainWings’ prisoners. I’ll take my chances in the desert, even without that mirror.”

  The argument didn’t go on much longer. Soon the sound of wingbeats thumped across the smooth obsidian.

  Sunny tilted the smoke together and breathed fire across it again until there was nothing but silence and darkness on the face of the mirror. The slithering inside of her faded, but she felt more tired and sick than she had in a while. I hope I don’t have to use this thing too often.

  So I’d better try to keep an eye on them.

  She ducked through the leaves and flew straight up until she slipped through the whispering green canopy, straight into blinding sunlight.

  On the western horizon, already no bigger than claws, she could see the three black shapes winging away toward the mountains. She followed, feeling better and stronger with each moment of sun on her scales.

  The Kingdom of Sand. The desert. Just on the other side of those mountains.

  I’m going home.

  Sunny followed the NightWings for three days as they navigated the foothills and then the snowier heights of the mountain crags. They slept in the shadow of Jade Mountain, listening to the wind howling around the twin peaks. She only had to use the mirror once more, when she lost sight of them, and it helped her catch up to them again.

  She would have loved to sneak back into their camp and leave more scary messages, but she knew they’d take turns staying awake to keep watch after losing the mirror. And she resisted the temptation to use the mirror on her friends or on Blister again, although she kept worrying about Blister’s new plan. Still, she wanted to avoid that sick, slithery feeling as much as possible.

  From the mountaintops, they flew down through densely forested foothills, and off in the distance ahead of them Sunny began to see something that shimmered white and hazy across the horizon.

  The desert, she thought with a prickle of anticipation. She’d been there once before, when the dragonets found the tunnel from the rainforest into the Kingdom of Sand. They’d had to chase Mangrove all the way to the borderlands of the Ice Kingdom. So she’d spent two days flying over the desert, but hardly any time down on the sand, where her talons really wanted to be.

  And no time at all looking for my parents. Her thoughts kept circling back to that as she flew, with no one to talk to and nothing else to distract her from worrying about the prophecy.

  Her friends had all found some kind of family by now — even if some of it was disappointing family, and no one was quite what they’d expected. Clay’s mother was awful, but his brothers and sisters were a lot like him, according to Clay. Tsunami’s mother was the queen of
the SeaWings, who had tried to imprison them, but Tsunami had two little sisters, too: Anemone and Auklet.

  Glory had no way to figure out who her parents were, thanks to the way RainWings kept their eggs all together, but she’d found a brother, Jambu (even if he was a bit silly), and also Grandeur, who was perhaps a great-grandmother or great-aunt or something like that. Poor Starflight had really had it the worst of all, between Mastermind for a dad and Fierceteeth as his sister.

  But at least they knew — at least they’d found someone. They all had dragons who wanted them in some way.

  Why did my parents leave me?

  She had almost nothing to go on if she ever wanted to look for her family. All Kestrel had said was, “Dune found Sunny’s egg in the desert, hidden near the Scorpion Den.”

  The Scorpion Den. I don’t even know what that is. She’d seen it marked on the map, but she didn’t remember reading about it in any scrolls.

  Oh! Her wings missed a beat as she finally remembered where she’d heard about Jade Mountain. It was something Kestrel said the last time we saw her. “When you realize you need me, you can send me a message through the dragon of Jade Mountain.”

  She twisted to look back at the fanged mountain. So a dragon lived there — one who dealt with at least some of the Talons of Peace. That could be useful to keep in mind. Although … who would live somewhere so sinister? She wondered which tribe it was from, and why he or she lived alone.

  When she turned back around, she saw the distant shapes of the NightWings diving toward the forest below them. Resting again? When we’re so close? We can’t be more than an hour’s flight from the desert now. They had only flown for half the night before stopping to sleep, and then risen with the sunrise to fly again a few hours ago.

  Now the sun had cleared the eastern horizon, but the day was barely begun. And they already needed a break? They seriously have no stamina. She rolled her eyes and folded her wings to drop down into the forest as well.

  Wind-flurried green leaves brushed against her scales and a riot of gray squirrels scattered along the branches as she landed, her talons sinking into the soft grass. In the distance, she could hear the NightWings roaring grumpily, and she guessed they were having another unsuccessful hunt. For a trio of menacing killers, they were actually surprisingly bad at catching anything to eat.

 
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