The hidden kingdom, p.15
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.15

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “It’s not stupid if it keeps us safe.” The first dragon sighed. “Throw her in with the others. But from now on, do as you’re told.”

  “Yeah, yeah,” grumbled the second dragon. “All right, I got it. No more hunting or grabbing dragons in the rainforest until Deathbringer says it’s all clear.”

  Glory had never been so glad that her scales were hidden. There was no way she could stop the colors flooding through them; she couldn’t even guess what they were turning to right now.

  Deathbringer did know who was taking the missing RainWings. He was connected to them. And somehow he had told them to stop . . . until “it’s all clear”; what did that mean? Until he’d finished kill ing the dragonets? Or until Glory and her friends stopped snooping around the tunnel?

  And how did he get a message to these dragons? Glory had left him in the Ice Kingdom and then caught him coming out of the desert tunnel into the rainforest. He’d said he followed the dragonets to the hole in the sand, but maybe he’d known about it before. Maybe he’d gotten there first, gone through to this place, warned these dragons, and then gone back to the desert tunnel after the dragonets were back in the rainforest . . . but . . .

  Glory remembered that Deathbringer had conveniently appeared just in time to stop them from catching the creature in the dark.

  He did that on purpose.

  He was warning off the other dragon — this one with the weird breathing.

  Deathbringer knew we would catch him. Maybe he wanted us to catch him.

  Her tail curled. And my friends are alone with Deathbringer. I have to get back to them. I have to get back right now.

  She flung open her wings and lashed her tail, clawing at the sack frantically.

  “Whoa!” yelled the hoarse voice. “A little help here!”

  Glory’s heart sank at the sound of footsteps and wingbeats. There were a lot more than two dragons out there. She kicked out blindly, fighting as hard as she could, but talons grabbed her from all sides, pinning her to the ground.

  “You’ll never get her there like this,” gasped one of the dragons. “You’ll have to knock her out again.”

  “My plea sure,” said the hoarse voice.

  And once again, something slammed into Glory’s head, and then all was darkness.

  “Hey!”

  Something nosed Glory in the ribs, and she woke up with a small yelp of pain.

  “Are you awake?” Tiny claws lifted Glory’s eyelids, and something blurry came way too close to her snout to peer at her.

  “Mmmmf!” Glory said through the gag around her mouth. She tried to push the something away, but her talons felt heavy and she missed.

  “Ha ha, don’t even try,” said the little voice. “I’ve spent my whole life waking up dragons who’d rather be sleeping instead of training me. I’m excellent at dodging when they get all mad about it.” The tiny claws poked at her ruff. “How come I don’t know you?”

  “Mmmmf,” Glory said again. Her head hurt. She rested it back on the ground and blinked until the world came into focus.

  A small diamond-shaped snout hovered only a few inches from hers. Gigantic dark eyes peered out of gold and orange scales. The little dragonet couldn’t have been more than three years old. She poked Glory’s ruff again.

  “Don’t worry, I know you can’t talk. I’m the only one without a gag. They decided my venom wasn’t strong enough or I couldn’t shoot it far enough to be dangerous, or something, I guess, which is a little unfair because if somebody would just train me properly, I think I’d be super-great at it and then these horrible dragons would be super-sorry for putting me in a cage.” A ripple of scarlet fury moved through her wings.

  Glory reluctantly sat up so she could look around. The pain in her head flared viciously, and she had to close her eyes until it receded into a dull throb.

  When she opened them again, she realized that the blurriness around her wasn’t just her eyes. The air was hazy with smoke. Pulsing heat wafted over her scales, although she couldn’t see any sign of a fire. She glanced up and saw jagged stone walls pressing close overhead. It seemed like the heat was coming from the rocks themselves.

  Back in a cave, she thought. Awesome.

  The sack was gone, but the bindings around her wings and claws were still in place. Her mouth was still bound as well, but it felt different from before — whatever clamped her snout shut now was much heavier than the earlier vines. She crossed her eyes trying to get a look at it.

  “It’s a metal band,” the little dragonet explained, tilting her head sympathetically. “Like this one around my neck. It’s to keep you from using your venom, but it’s also so we can’t camouflage ourselves and disappear; they’ll always be able to see the metal band.” She pointed to a thick brassy clamp around her own neck. “Smart but annoying, right?” She paused. “Kind of like me! Ha ha! My name’s Kinkajou, by the way, in case you were wondering.”

  So there’s one of the missing RainWings, Glory thought. Where are the others? The small cave held only herself and the dragonet. A half-moon of light glowed at the cave opening, not far away. Glory took a tentative step toward it, then another when nothing happened. Nothing fell from the roof; nothing attacked her; no alarms went off. What sort of prison was this?

  Kinkajou followed her, still chattering. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “I’m super-good at that, especially nowadays when I’m the only one who can talk and so I have to imagine the other side of every conversation I have. Maybe telepathy is contagious or something. But anyway, you’re thinking you can walk out of this cave, and trust me, you can’t, but you’ll have to go see for yourself because everybody does, I guess, instead of listening to me.”

  Glory reached the entrance and stopped.

  Kinkajou was right. There was no walking out this way.

  A wide, sluggish river of molten lava flowed past just outside the cave. It glowed gold and orange-bright, the only splash of color in a barren black landscape. With her wings bound, Glory would never make it across.

  She leaned out to see where the lava river started. A hulking dark mountain filled the sky, half-hidden by the smoke pouring out the top. Smaller rivulets of lava dappled the slope and a red glow came from a few holes in the rocks. It was hard to tell whether it was night or day; the light was so strange, and the sky was swathed in dark clouds. Glory guessed that she’d been knocked out for a few hours, at least. The rotten-eggs smell was thick in the air.

  “Sinister, right?” Kinkajou said in her ear, and Glory jumped. “Who would actually want to live here? I don’t get it.”

  Who does live here? Glory wondered. The Talons of Peace? Is this where they hide?

  And then she realized that parts of the landscape were moving, and they weren’t rocks after all . . . they were dragons. Black dragons, with silver scales glittering under their wings. She could see at least a hundred of them scattered across the mountain and several more flying above it.

  She inhaled sharply and regretted it as sulfur filled her nose.

  I know where we are.

  This is the secret home of the NightWings.

  Glory turned to the dragonet and waved her bound claws at the gag around her mouth.

  “Oh my gosh,” said Kinkajou, staring at Glory’s scales as they changed color. “You’re excited about something. I wonder what! Ooooo, and curious. Sure, of course you are. You must have lots of questions. I sure had lots of questions when I got here. Hey, now you’re . . . frustrated! Super-frustrated! And getting mad! Wow, what are you so —”

  Exasperated, Glory shoved her aside and marched back into the cave.

  “Oh, you’re mad at me,” said Kinkajou, trotting along behind her. “I’m used to that.”

  The cave was not very big, ending abruptly at a steep drop-off at the back. Glory stared down into a pitch-black abyss. With no fire an
d no ability to see in the dark, no RainWing would get very close to that. Even if her wings were free, Glory wouldn’t go near it.

  “That’s how I visit the other prisoners,” Kinkajou said. “All their caves, and the one I’m supposed to stay in, open out onto this.”

  Glory looked at the dragonet with new respect. Kinkajou’s wings weren’t bound, but they were tiny; most three-year-old dragons couldn’t fly for long without needing a rest. She couldn’t have known how long she’d have to fly when she first jumped into the darkness, looking for other prisoners. That was a special kind of brave. And crazy.

  Kinkajou tilted her head at Glory. “I have no idea what that color means,” she said. “Wow, you really are different.” She reached up and tugged on the ropes around Glory’s wings. “But this is the same.” She sighed. “I can’t get any of them off. I’m sorry. It’s some kind of super-impossible knot.”

  Glory held up her claws. Thick canvas covered them, tied together with another rope around each forearm.

  “Here, too,” Kinkajou said, pointing to the knot. “See how tight that is?” Glory squinted at it. She didn’t know much about knots. She nodded to Kinkajou’s talons, and the little dragonet shook her head. “They’re not sharp enough to cut through the rope. I’ve tried.” Kinkajou sliced one tiny claw across the rope, but it didn’t even look frayed.

  Glory lashed her tail.

  “It is frustrating,” Kinkajou agreed. “Stupid NightWings. But if we tried to escape, they’d read our minds or foresee it and stop us anyway, right?”

  Glory discovered that she could still growl.

  “Does that mean you want to try?” Kinkajou asked, perking up. Her ruff flared around her face. “Because nobody else wants to try escaping but I so do, because oh my gosh you haven’t even seen how awful the food is here. They keep bringing us horrible dead things. I mean, things that have been dead for weeks, I think. It is mega-gross and makes us totally sick when we eat it. There’s no fruit at all. Tapir finally just let himself starve to death, it’s so awful. I try to eat as little as I can.”

  How am I supposed to make an escape plan with a dragonet who won’t shut up? Glory wondered. When I can’t even ask her any questions?

  Such as: What did the NightWings want with the RainWings anyway?

  Why were they kidnapping them and holding them prisoner?

  What did Deathbringer have to do with this plan? And why had he told them to stop?

  “Confused!” Kinkajou guessed, pointing at Glory’s scales. “And . . . frustrated again!”

  I need a color for STOP THAT, Glory thought.

  Something flapped outside the cave entrance. Kinkajou turned toward the sound, then winced and closed her eyes.

  Glory pushed past her and peered out.

  Three NightWings flew over the lava river and disappeared into another cave not far from Glory’s. A few moments later, they reappeared, dragging a limp RainWing behind them.

  The RainWing’s scales were a heavy gray, like rain clouds; it was a color of sadness Glory hadn’t seen on any other RainWing. He was conscious but neither struggled nor helped the NightWings. He just hung between them like he’d given up completely. Glory thought of Jambu’s vibrantly joyful scales and felt a stab of anger — at the NightWings, for ripping innocent dragons from their homes, and at the other RainWings, for letting this happen to their friends without even noticing or caring that they were gone.

  The black dragons lifted the RainWing over the river and carried him up the slope of the mountain, letting his tail bump across the rocks. Glory watched until they all vanished into a sort of fortress halfway up the mountain. It looked like a jumbled pile of rocks, so she hadn’t realized it was a building before.

  “Poor Gibbon,” Kinkajou said. “They take him all the time. I guess his venom is way more interesting than mine or something.”

  Glory whirled to stare at her.

  “Oh, yeah,” Kinkajou said. “When they take you up there, try pretending your venom doesn’t work right or something. That’s all they want us to do — melt things. It’s so weird! Like, can’t they melt their own things? So far I’ve melted an orange and a pile of leaves. They told me to melt this metal claw-thing, too, but of course that’s stupid; our venom doesn’t work on nonliving stuff. And then they had me spit some venom into a bowl and who knows what they want with that. I don’t get it.”

  They’re studying us, Glory realized. Or, at least, they’re studying our venom. She turned and began pacing the length of the cave. Are they hoping to use it themselves? As a weapon? But the NightWings don’t fight. They stay out of the war. So who do they need weapons for?

  Are they planning to join the war soon?

  On whose side?

  Blister’s, of course, she thought immediately, smacking herself in the head with her tail. That’s why they wanted us to choose her for the prophecy.

  But why join the war now? And why torture RainWings for their venom when NightWings have their own ever-so-special powers they never shut up about?

  “That must be what thinking hard looks like,” Kinkajou said, hopping onto a boulder and watching Glory with great interest. “Your scales are all kinds of colors right now. I’ve never seen another RainWing do that. Oh, I wish you could talk to me!”

  Me too, Glory thought.

  “Maybe we could escape together, and then you could be my teacher,” Kinkajou said. “I swear I’m not as awful as everyone says. But we’d have to get you across the lava, and then we’d have to find the tunnel back to the rainforest, and then we’d have to get past the guards there, and then we’d have to get all your bindings off, or maybe we’d have to do that first; actually, that would make more sense, because then you could fly and fight and stuff, but I have no idea how to do any of that.”

  She stopped, her wings drooping, and suddenly looked very young. Glory had been wondering why Kinkajou didn’t escape on her own. But if she didn’t know where the tunnel was, and there were guards to fight along the way . . . it was a tall order for a little dragon. Especially when failure would surely mean she’d end up bound and gagged like the other RainWings.

  “Maybe I could find something sharp enough to cut the ropes,” Kinkajou said, brightening again. “Like a really sharp rock. Or — well, there’s not much around here except rocks. Oh! Or I could check one of the really disgusting dead things for sharp bones when our dinner comes. That would be pretty gross, though. Maybe you should do that.”

  Glory thumped her tail on the ground to get Kinkajou’s attention. She pointed to her mouth, then her stomach, then her mouth again, and tried to turn her scales the color of curiosity.

  “You’re asking me a question!” Kinkajou said with great delight. “Wait, let me guess. You’re . . . hungry?”

  Glory frowned and tapped the rope around her mouth, pointed to the cave opening, flapped her arms like wings, pointed to her stomach, and pointed to the rope again.

  Kinkajou furrowed her brow. “Something about the NightWings and food — oh! Oh, I know! You want to know if they take off the metal band when they feed us. Am I right? Am I right?” She turned toward the cave entrance as Glory nodded. “I guess you’re about to find out.”

  The little dragonet darted over the drop and vanished into one of the gaps in the far wall. Glory could see her eyes shining in the dark, still watching.

  Four NightWings ducked into the cave, one after the other, crowding the narrow space. Glory held her ground and glared at them. At least there was no sign of Morrowseer. She was safer as an ordinary RainWing prisoner than she would be if they found out she was the dragonet messing up their prophecy — the one they’d already tried to kill more than once.

  The last dragon who came in had a disturbing scar twisted across his snout. Strange bubbles of deformed skin protruded from his jawline, and one of his nostrils was sealed shut, so he breathed in a lo
ud, snuffly way.

  When he spoke, Glory recognized the hoarse voice of the dragon who’d captured her.

  He was the one in the forest, she realized, listening to his peculiar breathing. The creature in the dark — the one who ate the dead sloth.

  “Looks normal to me,” he said gruffly.

  One of the others gave him a scathing look. “On the contrary,” she said. “There’s clearly something wrong with this one.”

  “What do you mean?” said a third dragon.

  “Observe her scales. Every other RainWing we’ve picked up turned instantly green — the color that seems to indicate fear. But this one — I don’t know what it indicates, but I’m seeing shades of red and orange, perhaps a little black here and here.” The NightWing used a thin stick to point to spots on Glory’s wings with clinical detachment. She could have been describing a moderately interesting beetle for all the emotion in her voice.

  “So she’s matching her environment,” said the third dragon. “That’s something they do, too, isn’t it?”

  Glory narrowed her eyes at them and turned a deliberate, violent shade of purple.

  “Oh, my,” said the unemotional dragon. “We should take her to the lab immediately for closer study. I strongly recommend not feeding her and not touching that gag until we know more about her.”

  “Bosh,” said the scarred NightWing. “All RainWings are the same. Rotten and useless.”

  “Besides, Queen Battlewinner doesn’t like to have her orders questioned,” the fourth dragon spoke up. He stepped forward with something furry and horrible-smelling in his talons. “It’s feeding time now. You can go ask her if this one should go to the lab afterward.”

  “I will,” she said, stepping back. “I’ve registered my concern here. You do what you like.” The NightWing slid out of the cave and flew off.

  Leaving only three for me to fight, Glory thought. You may have studied the venom of pacifist, well-trained, frightened RainWings, but you’ve never studied me.

  The scarred dragon produced a long spear from a sheath on his back. The sharp end had three twisted clawlike points and glinted evilly in the reddish light. He hefted it in his talons and flicked his black tongue at Glory as if he were hoping she’d give him an excuse to hurt her.

 
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