The brightest night, p.5
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       The Brightest Night, p.5

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Sunny wasn’t the world’s best hunter herself, but she didn’t need much. She’d always eaten less than her friends — a lizard a day would be enough for her. Kestrel used to grumble that that was probably why Sunny was so stunted and scrawny, but then Dune would shake his head and insist that it was normal for SandWings to be light eaters.

  Kestrel and Dune. Our dead guardians.

  If only she’d had more time to ask Dune about where her egg came from. He’d always been evasive when the subject came up, but if she’d known her friends were planning an escape — if they’d trusted me enough to tell me about it, she thought with a frown — she could have pressed him harder.

  Sunny swiveled her head around, listening.

  There was an odd noise in this forest.

  Actually there were several odd noises. Like thumps and murmurs and a chattery kind of birdsong, almost as though squirrels were trying to imitate their winged neighbors.

  But — it sounded as though it was coming from under the ground.

  She crouched and pressed one ear to the warm earth.

  There’s definitely something under here. Groundhogs? Rabbits? She didn’t think any normal rodents made noises quite like this. And from what she could tell, it wasn’t a small warren underneath her — the sounds seemed to be coming from fairly far away as well.

  Softly she paced through the forest, stopping occasionally to listen. She kept an eye out for the three NightWings, but they weren’t hard to avoid. First there was the roaring and crashing around, and then after a while, snoring that shook the top branches of the trees.

  Sunny worked her way cautiously westward, in the direction of the desert. Small brown and red birds chorused from the trees, occasionally pausing as they saw her approach, and then starting again after a moment, as if they realized she was nothing to worry about. Bumblebees and dragonflies buzzed and hummed and flitted around her talons. In the mild morning breeze, Sunny could smell apples and mint leaves. And something else, too, like old burnt wood.

  She couldn’t hear the sounds from under the ground anymore, but the burnt smell drew her on. Up ahead she could see a break in the trees.

  She stepped out into the bright sunlight and stopped, her eyes momentarily full of light.

  There was a hole blasted in the forest.

  Something had been here once — something that stretched for more than a mile within the forest, bigger than the dragonets’ home under the mountain — but it was gone now, all burned to black ashes.

  Where Sunny stood, at the edge of it, the forest was trying to rise again. Ashes drifted like dead leaves over her claws, but she could see small green shoots wriggling through here and there.

  She spread her wings and took to the air, hoping for a better look. The burnt area stretched in jagged slashes through the trees and ended at the border with the rocky foothills that led to the desert. From above, she could see that the hole in the forest was many wingspans across and black as a NightWing’s scales. It looked like a dark gap in a piece of jewelry where a gemstone had been violently gouged out.

  She circled overhead. Everything inside the hole looked twisted and blasted into dark ashes, but as Sunny studied the wreckage, she realized that it wasn’t just trees that had been burned here.

  Some of the ghostly shapes that remained looked like … buildings.

  But these buildings were too small for dragons.

  Sunny landed next to one of the ruins and stared at it in confusion for a moment. Even she was too big to fit through the stone doorways that leaned silently out of the ashes.

  But why would any dragon build houses so small?

  She walked around it, her wings stirring up small tornadoes of ash flakes, and saw that in the center of the burnt area was a kind of open square. She could feel hard, cracked stones meeting her claws under the layers of ash. In the middle of the square she found a collapsed pile of round rocks, and tipped sideways among those was a blackened metal bell about the size of Sunny’s head.

  Somebody definitely built this. Were they keeping some kind of small animal here?

  She turned to look at another of the small stone doorways and found a shape sticking out of the wreckage beside it. When she clawed it out, she realized it was a piece of stone, roughly carved into a shape with two legs, no wings, and holding something pointy over its head.

  Oh! Sunny inhaled sharply, getting a noseful of old soot smell. Scavengers! The statue, if that’s what it was, looked a bit like a drawing from one of the old scrolls about scavengers who attacked dragons for their treasure, waving sharp little toothpick claw things called swords.

  Did scavengers build this place? Can they do things like make bells and carve statues?

  Sunny knew scavengers lived in dens, but she hadn’t thought they could build real buildings like this. She always imagined them clustering in caves or digging out holes to live in, or maybe leaning long sticks together to create shelters, at most. Here there was clearly advanced masonry, deliberate foundation work, and a sort of organized street plan, as far as Sunny could tell.

  Plus the statue … it was crude, but wasn’t it art? What kind of prey made art?

  Maybe I’m misunderstanding all of this. Maybe dragons built this place and kept scavengers here for some reason.

  And then burned it all down? Why would they do that?

  She lifted into the sky, feeling unsettled.

  The dragonets had studied scavengers in their scrolls, but Webs and Kestrel had never brought any back to their mountain caves for eating or practice hunting. Sunny had seen a few small scavengers in Queen Scarlet’s palace, scurrying around under the dragons’ feet at a banquet for the visiting SandWings. But she’d been up in a giant birdcage, on display as a gift for Burn, so she hadn’t gotten a very close look.

  Scavengers were the ones who’d started the dragon war by killing Queen Oasis and stealing all her treasure, leaving Burn, Blaze, and Blister to fight over the throne and the empty treasury. Sunny didn’t know much else about scavengers. She knew they liked shiny things. She’d always imagined scavengers as sort of fierce magpies or squirrels — bigger than either of those, but not much smarter. They couldn’t have very much of a brain if they thought attacking dragons was a good idea, right?

  She glanced down at the destroyed village once more, then turned back to find a spot where she could hide and wait for the NightWings.

  Maybe there’s more to scavengers than we were taught.

  But what happened here?

  Who burned down this scavenger den … and why?

  Heat blazed across Sunny’s scales. She burrowed into the sand, feeling the tiny particles drift across her talons and tail. The Obsidian Mirror caught the sunshine as if it were trying to suck all the light into itself, and the black wisps of smoke on its surface looked like small sandstorms.

  “Why wouldn’t we go straight to Burn’s stronghold?” Fierceteeth’s voice demanded.

  “Because she’ll have us slaughtered the moment she sees us coming,” Preyhunter said impatiently. “Burn is a ‘kill first, ask questions later’ kind of dragon.”

  “It makes sense to start at the Scorpion Den,” Strongwings agreed. “We can find someone there to take a message to Burn that we want to see her.”

  Sunny closed her eyes. The Scorpion Den. That might be where my parents live.

  “I thought the Scorpion Den was full of lowlifes and criminals,” said Fierceteeth.

  “It is,” said Preyhunter.

  It is? thought Sunny. Is that what my parents are?

  “But they’re the kind of criminals who know how to get things done, from everything I’ve heard,” said Strongwings. “That’s exactly what we need right now. Besides, the Scorpion Den isn’t far — just over those dunes.”

  Sunny sat up and narrowed her eyes against the bright glare of the sun. The NightWings were far ahead of her, but she thought she could see a dark shape against the sand off in the distance, which might be the Scorpion Den.
br />   “All right, all right,” Fierceteeth grumbled. “Waste of time, if you ask me.”

  Sunny cleared the mirror, feeling excitement prickle through her scales. She knew it was unlikely that she’d find out something about her past in the Scorpion Den, but it was still the closest she’d ever been to her parents. Even if they were criminals, she still wanted to know who they were.

  Also, a detour to the Scorpion Den would give her more time to slow down the NightWings. She still hadn’t come up with any plans to stop them from telling Burn everything.

  In the distance she saw the tiny black shapes lift into the sky. Cautiously she followed them. There was really nowhere to hide in the desert, unless she burrowed under the sand, so she was staying as far back as possible.

  But it was hard to stop her wings from beating faster and faster as they drew closer to the Scorpion Den. Sunny could see that it was a walled city full of winding alleyways, ramshackle stone buildings, tattered canopies, and dilapidated tents in colors that had been faded by the sun over a long period of time. And it seethed with dragons: scales glittered from every shadow and venomous tails slithered around corners.

  She was so preoccupied staring at the town that she had to stop herself abruptly in midair when she realized that the three NightWings had not gone inside, but were standing outside the tall gates at the single entrance. It looked as though they were arguing with the muscular SandWing guard, who stood with her wings folded back and her tail raised menacingly.

  Sunny dropped quickly to the sand, hoping she hadn’t been seen. She flattened herself against the dune, even though she knew her scales were not quite the right color for camouflage.

  Now that she was still, she could hear the dragons’ voices shouting.

  “You have no right to stop us!” Fierceteeth roared. “Can’t you see that we’re NightWings?”

  “Yeah,” answered the guard. “So read my mind. The part that says go eat your tails.”

  “We have business in the Scorpion Den,” Preyhunter insisted.

  “No one gets inside without a contribution to the Outclaws,” the guard said firmly.

  “The Outclaws?” said Preyhunter. “That’s what you call yourselves? You must be joking.”

  “Are you asking for treasure?” Fierceteeth demanded. “Of course we don’t have treasure! Our home was just —”

  “Surely you can make an exception for us,” Strongwings interjected, cutting her off. “I mean, we’re NightWings.”

  “And?” said the guard.

  There was a pause. Sunny grinned, imagining the apoplectic fit Fierceteeth was probably having.

  “We could give you a prophecy,” Preyhunter suggested after a moment.

  “Hah,” the guard said, sounding moderately more interested. “That would be funny. Qibli! Tell Thorn we have three NightWings offering their pathetic services.”

  “I think you mean prophetic services,” Fierceteeth said.

  “Uh-huh,” said the guard skeptically.

  There was a long silence as everyone waited. Sunny wriggled higher up on her dune, hoping for a view of the city gates, but a long slope of sand dotted with prickly spheres of cacti blocked her way.

  What can I offer the guard to get inside the Scorpion Den? she wondered. She glanced down at the Obsidian Mirror. It was the only thing she had — was it worth giving up her one advantage over the NightWings? On the other talon, she knew she’d be happy to have its sinister weight out of her claws. But on the third talon, she didn’t know who would end up with their claws on this potentially dangerous weapon. What might the Outclaws do with it?

  Hmmm. Moreover, even if she didn’t offer it to them, what was to stop a band of outlaws from just taking it? Sunny thought for a moment, then quickly dug a hole in the sand next to one of the cactus balls and buried the mirror. Of course there wasn’t anything here to help her distinguish one brownish rolling sand dune from the next. She’d have to cross all her claws and hope she’d be able to find it again. But a dangerous mirror nobody could find was better than a dangerous mirror floating around the Scorpion Den, surely.

  She lifted her head as the guard below spoke. “All right,” he said. “Thorn wants to see you, don’t ask me why. Follow Qibli — and no funny business.”

  Sunny waited as long as she could bear it, then scrambled up and started over the dune.

  A SandWing was standing there, no more than three steps away, staring straight at her as if he’d been waiting for her. His side was pocked and dented with old scars, and he had six claws on each foreleg, instead of five. She had no idea where he’d come from, or how he’d snuck up on her so quickly and quietly.

  “Oh!” she yelped.

  “That means you, too,” he said calmly.

  “M-m-me too what?” Sunny stammered.

  He tilted his head and studied her curiously, registering the odd color of her scales and eyes, and no doubt noticing her venomless tail as well.

  “You’re to come before the Outclaws as well. Thorn wants to know why you’re following those scumdwellers.” He jerked his head in the direction of the den and the NightWings. Sunny had never heard anyone refer to NightWings with that much disrespect before, except perhaps Tsunami or Glory.

  “I’m — I’m not following anybody,” Sunny said, folding her wings back. She could hear how unconvincing she sounded.

  He shrugged. “Lie to me all you want, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it with Thorn.” He flicked his tail and she flinched away. “Come.”

  It was not a request. At least he wasn’t threatening to chain her up — and at least going with him would mean getting into the Scorpion Den without the problem of payment.

  “Fine,” she said, lifting her chin. “Take me to Thorn.”

  They flew down to the city gates and the guard nodded impassively as they went past her, straight into a crooked stone alleyway with steps leading up and down. Sharp, spicy cooking smells filled the air, along with the scents of smoke and crowds of overheated dragons. The streets around them were lined with rickety stalls and tents, and voices began pressing in on Sunny.

  “Crocodile stew? Roasted scorpion? Bag of crickets?”

  “Bet you’d like some gold for them golden scales!”

  “Stock up on brightsting cactus — you never know when you might need it!”

  “Need anyone killed, little lady? Here, take my card.”

  A small, flat piece of metal, inscribed with a name, was pressed into Sunny’s talons, and the SandWing who’d given it to her vanished almost immediately. Sunny blinked and glanced up at the dragon escorting her.

  “Whose is it?” he asked, plucking it out of her claws. “Nah, you don’t want him. Too expensive, barely competent.” He tossed the card into another stall as they went by, and a snout poked out of a pile of carpets to growl at them.

  “Ouch!” Sunny yelped as someone rushed past and stepped on her tail. She tried to sidestep a pair of quarreling dragons and got smacked in the face by a sandy wing.

  These streets are so narrow … and there are so many of them…. They must accidentally scratch each other with their tails all the time. She looked more closely at the stalls around her and realized that many of them sold the cactus that was the antidote to SandWing venom. As far as she could see, it was nearly as popular as the giant camel-hide pouches of water being sold by every other merchant, or the tiny blue dragons and shiny black spheres that also seemed to share all the tables with other merchandise.

  A wooden signboard caught her eye: three dragons’ faces carved under the words wanted. Sunny twisted to try and stare at the faces as her guard hurried her past. She could have sworn one of them was Dune … and one of the others was … but surely it couldn’t be …

  Her guard steered her through the tangles of dragons, keeping one wing firmly settled against her back. Other dragons jumped out of his way when they spotted him, or ducked their heads as he went by, or slipped into shadowy corners, hissing. Soon Sunny realized that the same
wooden wanted sign was posted everywhere, hung from walls, pinned to tent flaps, and nailed to the stallboards. She got a chance to peer at one more closely when they paused to let a cart of gold-painted boxes clatter by.

  It really does look like Morrowseer. Morrowseer, Dune, and a NightWing I’ve never seen before. But why? And who’s looking for them?

  There was small print below the pictures, but Sunny didn’t get to read it before her guard hurried her on.

  Nearly all the dragons she saw were SandWings, although she also spotted a couple of scarlet SkyWings and even, once, the pale blue scales of an IceWing, who must have been miserable in this heat. She also noticed a lot of war wounds: dragons with missing talons, mangled wings, clawed-up snouts, or ripped ears, many of them huddling in the spaces between the stalls, skinny and wretched.

  Although she was sure the Scorpion Den was a dangerous place to live, she guessed that a lot of dragons came here to hide from the war — either before they could be pressed into service, or after they’d been so badly injured that they couldn’t bear to fight anymore.

  One SandWing limped up to them and did an odd half salute to Sunny’s guard. “Going off-duty, sir.” He paused and squinted at Sunny, and she realized that he had a long scratch across one of his eyes that had also torn up part of his nose. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but she was sure she would have remembered that scratch.

  “Addax, quit reporting to me all the time,” the guard said. “That’s not how the Outclaws work. Also, I told you to stop calling me ‘sir.’ ”

  “Yes. Right. Right.” The dragon coughed, clearly swallowing another “sir.” “Uh, who’s your guest?”

  Sunny sidled closer to her escort, wishing Addax would stop staring at her. Her guard seemed to sense this; he casually spread his big wings to shield her from view.

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