The hidden kingdom, p.14
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.14

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  Tsunami wrinkled her snout, thinking. “Or,” she said, “we go back to plan A. Kill him right now.”

  “Tsunami, I don’t think you want to do that any more than I do,” Glory said.

  That shut her up. Glory had noticed Tsunami getting queasier about kill ing other dragons after her experiences in the SkyWing arena. Self-defense was one thing, but they had Deathbringer trapped under their talons.

  “All right,” Tsunami said finally, after a long pause. “You’re right. I don’t want to. But I was hoping he’d think we wanted to, so good job backing me up on that.”

  “Sorry I couldn’t read your mind like a stupid NightWing,” Glory said. “Speaking of which, are you the mind-reading kind of NightWing?” She narrowed her eyes at Deathbringer. “What am I thinking right now?”

  “That I’m much too charming, clever, and good-looking to kill?” he guessed.

  That was actually a little closer to accurate than Glory liked. She flared her ruff and poked his snout again. “Wrong,” she said. “I’m thinking that you’re starting to be an awful lot of trouble. Have you decided to kill me after all?”

  The rakish grin faded from Deathbringer’s face. He studied her as though he were seriously considering the question.

  “Not sure I like the length of this pause,” Glory said.

  “I’ve been wondering if there’s an alternative,” said Deathbringer. “But that’s not usually my call.”

  “Whose is it?” Tsunami demanded. “The NightWing queen?”

  Deathbringer made a peculiar expression which Glory couldn’t interpret. “I can’t say.”

  “I don’t understand why any NightWings would want me dead,” Glory said.

  “That has become ever more mystifying to me as well,” Deathbringer said, in a manner that managed to sound both gallant and truthful.

  “So you’re mystified,” Glory said. “But you’ll still probably do it.”

  “I wouldn’t say probably,” Deathbringer offered. “I’d say maybe.”

  “I wouldn’t call that reassuring,” Glory shot back. “I’d call that the opposite of reassuring.”

  He grinned at her again. He really needed to quit doing that. It was very distracting.

  “So what do we do with him?” Tsunami asked her. “We can’t let him go. And we can’t take him back to the RainWing village.”

  “We could tie him up, leave him in the forest, and hope the monster eats him,” Glory said. She squinted at Deathbringer’s face. He didn’t look even a little bit worried. “Did we mention the monster?” she asked him. “It’s been abducting or possibly eating RainWings around here. I bet it’ll be pretty excited to find you all tied up.”

  “Oh, no,” Deathbringer said. “Please don’t leave me alone where a monster could get me.”

  Glory opened her mouth and then closed it. She’d just had a possibly brilliant and perfectly terrible idea. One she’d have to think about for a minute. She poked him in the snout again.

  “Was that sarcasm?” she asked. “Tsunami, did that sound weirdly sarcastic to you?”

  “Like he doesn’t believe in monsters,” Tsunami said. “Which I’m not sure I do either, just for the record.”

  Or he’s in cahoots with it, Glory thought. Or at least he knows what it is and isn’t afraid of it. She decided not to say this out loud. Tsunami’s enthusiasm for interrogation might spring up again, and Glory was fairly sure it would be a waste of time. They weren’t going to get anything useful out of Deathbringer by looking fierce and demanding answers.

  Besides, now that a plan was forming in her mind, she wanted to try it out. Which meant she had to get rid of Tsunami.

  “Let’s drag him away from the tunnel and tie him up,” she said. “Then you go tell the others, and we can take turns watching him until he decides to tell us who wants us dead and why.”

  “And which of us,” Tsunami suggested. “He said he was sent to kill a few of us, not just you.”

  “And also, you know, how to avoid it,” said Glory.

  “You’ll have to wait awhile,” Deathbringer said. “I’m not allowed to tell you anything.”

  Tsunami and Glory ignored this. They ripped vines down from the trees and wrapped the strongest ones around his wings. Tsunami tied his talons together so he couldn’t run, slid a rope around his neck, and prodded him ahead of them into the forest. After a short walk, they found a tree that Tsunami approved of and tied him to it with the tightest knots they could muster.

  “He’ll burn through these vines the moment we walk away,” Tsunami pointed out.

  “So we don’t walk away,” Glory said. “You go tell the others. I’ll sit here with my extremely deadly secret weapon pointed at him.”

  “What’s that?” asked Deathbringer. “Wait, let me guess. Your rapier wit.”

  “Try to escape and find out the dead way,” Glory offered.

  He leaned back against the tree, looking perfectly comfortable and thoroughly uninterested in escaping. Peculiar dragon, Glory thought.

  “Send back Clay first,” Glory suggested to Tsunami. “He can take the next watch.”

  “I hope you hear how bossy you’re being,” Tsunami said. “I’m letting it slide for now, but I’ll remember this.”

  “Oh, go away.” Glory flapped her wings at her until the SeaWing lifted off into the darkness.

  As her wingbeats faded, the night sounds of the rainforest settled over them. An orchestra of insects warbled and chirped away as the trees rustled, night birds called, and frogs muttered in the background like a disgruntled audience.

  “It’s so noisy here,” Deathbringer said after a moment. “So alive.”

  “Is it not like that where you come from?” Glory asked.

  “It’s a lot quieter in the Ice Kingdom,” he pointed out. “And the Kingdom of Sand.” He didn’t say anything about the NightWing home, but she didn’t really expect him to.

  She stared into the trees, thinking hard. Once Clay arrived to take her place, she could slip away. No one would notice she was missing for a while. She could go out and look for the monster by herself, which was the best way to do anything, if you asked her.

  “Don’t do it,” said Deathbringer suddenly.

  “You better not be reading my mind,” she snapped.

  “I don’t have to,” he said. “You have ‘I’m about to do something stupid’ written all over your face.”

  “It’s not stupid,” she said. “It’s quite clever. And it might be the only way to catch the monster.”

  “Maybe you should leave the monster alone,” he said. “Forget about it. Get back to the prophecy-fulfilling business.”

  That stopped her for a moment. The prophecy — putting an end to the war — was important. Finding a few RainWings hardly compared. But she’d made a promise.

  “I’m not even in the stupid prophecy,” she said.

  “I know,” he said. “But I bet you’d still be remarkably good at making it come true.”

  “That doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “And the RainWings are my tribe. They need my help.” She felt a burst of certainty in her chest. “And I have to do this on my own.”

  “Wait,” said Deathbringer, with a gratifying note of alarm in his voice. “Why? You have friends. Let them help you.”

  Glory shook her head. “They can’t help me with this. The monster, or whatever is out there, isn’t going to approach a group of dragonets. It attacks RainWings who are out in the forest alone.”

  “So you’re —”

  Glory smiled at Deathbringer. “I’m going to use myself as bait.”

  “Watch him carefully,” Glory instructed Clay. “Don’t let him talk.”

  “MMMMMFF,” Deathbringer complained through the vines she’d tied around his snout. She didn’t want him spilling the beans to Clay before
she could get away into the forest. Also, she’d gotten sick of listening to him yammer all night long trying to derail her plan. This way she’d been able to watch the sunrise in relative peace and quiet, shortly after which Clay had shown up.

  “No worries,” Clay said. “I’ll just sit here and be my usual intimidating self.” He threw back his shoulders and tried to scowl.

  “Absolutely terrifying,” Glory assured him.

  Deathbringer managed to look skeptical despite the vines obscuring most of his face.

  “I’ll send someone else soon to take the next watch,” she said, backing away.

  But first I’m going to catch a monster.

  It wasn’t that stupid a plan, no matter what Deathbringer said. A lone RainWing was exactly the kind of target the monster would go after. And she couldn’t risk enlisting another RainWing as bait — they were all too dopey to be any use, even Mangrove.

  Besides, as far as she could tell, she was the only RainWing willing to use her venom on other living things. It wasn’t her favorite thing to do, but it was still a weapon — a powerful one that few dragons knew about — and she was sure she could use it to escape any situation if she had to.

  She headed back to the tunnel first. She was still certain that it was connected to the missing RainWings, although she couldn’t figure out how.

  It started with the question: Who had put the tunnel in place? And then: What was their plan — to steal a RainWing here and there? Why?

  Glory nosed around the forest near the tunnel opening until she found a clearing where she could sit and think for a moment.

  Burn seemed like an obvious suspect, since her stronghold was not far from the tunnel. But Glory had seen the look on Burn’s face as Glory’s venom sizzled on Queen Scarlet’s scales. It was pure shocked terror. The SandWing queen had clearly never seen anything like Glory’s venom before. If she were the one abducting RainWings for the past year, surely she’d have heard about their training sessions and she’d know all about it.

  Glory stopped at a small bush and sprayed it with her venom. Black goop spattered over the leaves, and almost immediately the whole bush wilted, shriveled up, and died. Glory tilted her head at it, feeling weirdly guilty.

  Maybe she could practice her aim while she waited for the monster to attack her. She chose another bush with long dragon-tail leaves and tried to hit just one of them.

  Half the bush went fzzzzzrrrt and melted into the grass.

  “Hmmm,” Glory said aloud. “Not awesome.”

  She tried again. And again. The clearing was starting to look a bit worse for wear.

  Glory stopped and smacked herself with her tail.

  Try using your brain for half a moment, Glory.

  If she made a mess like this with her venom practice, then surely the other training dragonets would have, too. So even though Bromeliad wouldn’t show her where Kinkajou had disappeared, there was a chance Glory could find it on her own.

  She started at the waterfall and circled out from there, walking so she could study the bushes as she went past them. Fat spiny frogs stared at her, making worgle-WORG noises in their throats. A pair of red and gold birds with large beaks followed her for a while, gossiping loudly in what sounded like garbled dragon language.

  But she found nothing — no signs of venom anywhere. Maybe the training sessions had been in a whole different part of the forest; maybe the secret tunnel really had nothing to do with the abductions.

  Glory stubbornly kept searching. What other reason could there be for the tunnel? Who would need to get quickly between the desert and the rainforest? No one . . . no one came to the rainforest at all, and the RainWings certainly never left.

  But the war is closer than they think, she thought. It’s right on their doorstep, ready to fall through into their peaceful world. She glared up at the treetops as an image of Queen Magnificent flashed through her head. And what is that useless queen going to do about it?

  Blaze is no better than Magnificent. If we pick her, we leave the SandWings as weak and vulnerable as the RainWings.

  She looked up at the trees again. Was it getting darker? The sun had been up for only a couple of hours.

  A fat raindrop splattered against her snout. The leaves above her whooshed like dragon wings as the wind rushed through them, and more rain came pattering down in scatters and sprays. Glory drew her wings close to her.

  Rain probably washed away any trace of venom training days ago, she realized. But she kept going, sodden undergrowth squelching below her talons.

  She found herself in a small circle where the trees above bent together to form a kind of umbrella canopy, keeping the ground below relatively dry. She stopped there, stretching and shaking her wings. This is stupid, she told herself. I’m not going to find anything, and I’m not going to get caught by anything in this weather either. What kind of creature would be out hunting in the rain? She might as well head back to the village and dry off.

  But as she turned to fly away, she spotted a dark patch on the bush of pink flowers beside her. Glory paused, then edged closer and peered at it.

  Several of the leaves were withered and dead, looking sickly, black, and twisted. A glossy pattern of dark droplets had hardened on the ground under the bush.

  Someone was training here, Glory thought. Maybe Kinkajou. Maybe one of the other missing dragons. She poked the piles of leaves that covered the ground and found half a talon print in the dirt — a small one, even smaller than Sunny’s. She leaned down to sniff at it.

  And that was when something bashed her on the back of her head.

  Glory started awake to the feeling of movement and something uncomfortable pressing against her wings. She kept still for a moment with her eyes closed, trying to figure out what was happening.

  It felt like she was being dragged along the ground. Her left side was unpleasantly damp and slimy, as if she were wrapped in something that instantly soaked up the mud and clung to her scales. Rain still splattered around her, the sound muffled now by whatever she was in . . . a giant sack of some kind, she guessed.

  Her wings were bound to her sides, and thick cloth was wrapped around her claws. More disturbingly, some kind of vine or rope was tied around her snout, binding her mouth shut.

  Which meant using her venom was out of the question.

  It also meant that whatever had caught her wasn’t just a mindless mystery beast. It was smart enough to tie her up. It probably knew about her venom — or it might just be wary of her teeth.

  Her tail thwacked against something solid and she winced. She cracked open her eyes and saw only darkness. No, wait — not total darkness. Faint green light filtered through the thick canvas around her. The sack pressed close to her snout; it smelled like dead animals and rotten eggs and fire, overwhelming the damp leafy scent of the rainforest outside.

  Glory tried to listen for clues, but all she could hear was wet slithering, which might be just the sack sliding over the forest floor. Then a shiver ran down her spine like sharp claws scrabbling to escape. She recognized the weird prickle under her scales — it was the feeling she got from the hole that led to the Kingdom of Sand.

  I was right, she thought. They’re taking me to the tunnel.

  Somehow, without her venom, she didn’t feel quite as triumphant about being right as she’d hoped.

  She heard splashing and a moment later water soaked through the sack as she was dragged through the stream. A couple of grunts followed, and Glory felt herself lifted up into the air, then dropped onto cold stone.

  Something shoved at her tail, and she started to slide, down and down as if it were slick ice below her.

  Wait, she thought with a sickening lurch. The tunnel to the desert doesn’t go down. Where am I? She smacked into a wall and slid around a corner, picking up speed again. This isn’t the hole to the Kingdom of Sand. But it
feels like that hole. So is this the same kind of passageway, ripped into the world where it shouldn’t be? And where does this one end?

  She tumbled suddenly into open space and slammed into a pile of thin furs, which did not do much to blunt the impact of the rocks underneath them.

  Glory lay there for a moment, trying not to groan. Every bone in her body ached; every scale felt as though it had been scraped raw. She was pretty sure she’d bitten her tongue when she landed. She could taste blood in her mouth.

  The smell of death and smoke was stronger now, and it was no longer raining, but there was hardly any light coming through the sack. This was definitely not the desert; it was chilly instead of blazingly warm, although the sound of a fire crackled somewhere nearby. Glory could hear a distant rumble like faraway thunderclouds, except that it felt like it was coming from below the rocks instead of up in the sky.

  Heavy feet thudded down beside her, and something snuffled loudly around the sack. Its breathing sounded the same as whatever had eaten the dead sloth in the night. Glory clenched her talons. Was it planning to eat her? Because it was in for quite a surprise if it —

  “Another one?” said a disapproving voice.

  The snuffling hitched for a second, as if startled, and then a hoarse voice beside Glory’s head said, “Yeah. Easy catch. She was all alone in the forest. Stupid like all RainWings.”

  Dragons, Glory thought. Relief warred with fury. They’re just dragons. Nothing mysterious and creepy. Apart from the basic mysterious creepiness of kidnapping other dragons, that is.

  Well, I can handle a couple of creepy dragons. Just as soon as they take this sack off me. She flexed her claws, wondering if she could rip through the cloth around them.

  “Didn’t you get the message?” said the first dragon.

  “Yeah,” said the one with the garbled breathing. “But I like the prey in the rainforest. And I was hungry. And then this dragon was just asking to get caught. Besides, I thought his message was stupid.”

 
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