The hidden kingdom, p.16
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.16

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  He hates us, she thought, meeting his eyes. It’s personal for him. Her gaze shifted to his scar. Ah. That looks like it could have been caused by a venom strike. I wonder which RainWing was bold enough to do that.

  With a shiver, she realized he was the first dragon she’d seen who’d survived a venom attack. Which meant it was possible to survive a venom attack. Which meant Queen Scarlet really might still be alive.

  The dead pile of fur landed by her feet, and the other two guards pulled out long spears of their own. Glory stared down at the meal they were offering. Kinkajou wasn’t exaggerating. It did smell horrible and long-dead. She could barely tell what it had once been — a muskrat, perhaps. A nasty bite on its side looked a lot like the one on the sloth by the river, black and infected.

  One of the guards leaned forward and jabbed his spear toward her face. Glory leaped back with a muffled snarl.

  “Hold still if you want to eat,” growled the scarred dragon. “Or else starve. We’re fine with that, too.”

  Glory clenched her talons and eyed the spear as it bobbed closer. It was hard to see exactly what the guard did, but she felt the spear points hook into some kind of latch on the metal band, then twist and pull. The clamp slipped open and off, and the NightWings all jumped back with their spears up.

  But not fast enough.

  Glory lunged forward with her fangs bared and seized the closest spear in her talons. She yanked it toward her, throwing the guard off-balance, and shot a jet of venom that missed his face but sprayed across his wings and back.

  He let go of the spear and stumbled toward the cave entrance with a shriek of pain.

  The scarred dragon dropped his spear. He shot out of the cave, shoving aside his injured tribemate as he went by.

  Glory whipped toward the last guard and tried to turn the spear on him, but her wrapped talons were clumsy and she fumbled the weapon. He darted toward her, stabbing for her neck. Glory hissed a spray of venom at him, but to her surprise he dodged and rolled under it. A moment later he knocked her over and pinned her facedown. He shoved her snout into the rocky floor and pressed the points of the spear into her neck.

  “Nice try, RainWing,” he snarled. “But it’s not that easy to fool a YYEEEOOOOOWW!” His weight suddenly disappeared from her back as his howls echoed around the cave.

  Glory leaped to her feet and found Kinkajou beside her, with her front talons pressed over her snout.

  “I can’t believe I did that!” Kinkajou yelped. “Oh my gosh, look at him!”

  The NightWing staggered into the wall, clawing at his neck. Kinkajou had hit him with only a few droplets of venom, but those were smoking and bubbling on his scales. He turned back to the two RainWings with pain-crazed rage in his eyes.

  “I’m sorry!” Kinkajou cried. “Oh, that looks like it hurts so much!”

  Glory yanked the spear out of the guard’s claws and shoved him over the drop-off at the back of the cave. She could hear him flapping and blundering around in the dark, still yowling.

  “But —” Kinkajou said.

  “He’ll be fine once he remembers he has fire,” Glory said. “We should be gone by then.”

  “I didn’t realize you meant escape now,” Kinkajou said. “I mean, like, right now. That is so crazy. You’re crazy.” Her voice was edgy and manic, but her scales were bright yellow with excitement.

  “Tone it down a bit, can you?” Glory said, nodding at the little dragonet’s wings. “We don’t need to alert the whole mountain as we escape. Try looking like them.” She turned her own scales the same gleaming black as the NightWings outside. “And I’m Glory, by the way.”

  “Got it,” Kinkajou said, flipping her tail. Inky black spread across her scales as if someone was pouring the night sky onto her. “But how do we get you over the lava river?”

  Whoops. Glory had forgotten about that. Or rather, she hadn’t thought that far ahead; she’d seen an opportunity to use her venom and took it without thinking. Who am I, Tsunami? she scolded herself.

  Worse yet, she knew the scarred NightWing would be back any moment with reinforcements.

  She clamped her teeth down on the canvas that covered her talons. With a violent shake of her head, she ripped at the cloth until it tore loose. As soon as her claws were free, she seized a spear and turned it on the ropes wrapped around her body.

  “The guards are coming,” Kinkajou said anxiously.

  “Pretend you’re a NightWing dragonet and stall them,” Glory said. She jabbed the spear point awkwardly at one of the ropes and stabbed herself in the underbelly. With a hiss, she hefted the weapon and tried again.

  “Yes. All right. Stall them. No problem,” Kinkajou said. She darted toward the cave entrance. The first NightWing Glory had attacked was lying halfway across the opening, moaning softly and writhing as if he were trying to wriggle out of his own skin.

  Kinkajou blinked at him for a moment, then lifted one of his wings so it draped across her shoulders and back, covering the brass band around her neck. She leaned a little way out of the cave and looked up.

  “Quick!” she shouted suddenly, making Glory jump. “She attacked us! And escaped! We saw her go that way!” She pointed down the mountain. “Hurry! Don’t stop! She was flying super-fast! No, no, I’ll take care of him! Go after her! She’s getting away!”

  The whoosh of wings shot by overhead, sending a blast of hot air back into the cave. At the same time, Glory finally hooked the spear into the knot of the rope. With a twist, she managed to saw the sharp points across the fibers until they split — but as that rope slid off, she realized there were four more separately knotted around her.

  I’ll never get these all off before they realize it was a trick and come back, she thought. There had to be another way across the river. Maybe there was something they could use as a stepping stone.

  She hurried to the opening and stared out, looking for large boulders. Kinkajou watched her trustingly. A squadron of five NightWings was flapping away down the mountain, toward a black-sand beach and an expanse of gray, stormy water.

  Only five NightWings to stop me? Glory thought. She glanced up the mountain, but there was no sign of an alarm or extra forces mobilizing.

  “I guess they’re not really that worried about me escaping,” she said uneasily.

  “I’m getting pretty worried about it, though,” Kinkajou offered.

  “Hey,” Glory said, poking the wounded guard. “You can still fly, can’t you?”

  He flinched away from her. “I can’t,” he moaned. “Everything hurts.”

  It didn’t even look that bad. He’d avoided the worst of the spray, and most of the damage was along one side of his back.

  “You’re going to hurt a lot more unless you carry me over this lava,” Glory said. “Or cut these ropes off for me.” She bared her fangs at him, and he threw his wings over his head, scuttling backward into the cave.

  “Actually,” said a new voice, “I have a better offer.”

  Glory whirled around as a black dragon descended from the sky and gave her a cheeky grin.

  “Hello, Glory,” said Deathbringer.

  “Don’t give me that smug face,” Glory snapped.

  “This isn’t my smug face, it’s my heroic face,” Deathbringer said. “And how funny is this? First I was your prisoner, now you’re mine?”

  “Perhaps you haven’t heard what I do to dragons who try to keep me prisoner,” Glory said with a hiss.

  “All right, stop it, you two.” Clay flapped up behind Deathbringer and landed beside Glory.

  “Clay!” Glory cried. “What are you doing here?”

  “We came to rescue you,” he said, nudging her wing with his. “Aren’t you pleased?”

  “I’m right in the middle of rescuing myself,” Glory said. She was having a hard time keeping her scales black when the sight of Clay
made her feel as pink as her ridiculous brother. “Maybe some other time.”

  “Don’t listen to her!” Kinkajou cried. “We definitely need rescuing! Please rescue us!”

  “How did you even get here?” Glory asked. “I mean, how did you know to look for me here?”

  Clay nodded at Deathbringer, who flicked his tail and managed to look even more smug. “He talked me into it. When you didn’t come back, he told me he knew where you’d gone and that he’d help me find you if I set him free.”

  “Sounds like a trick,” Glory said, eyeing Deathbringer suspiciously. Why would he work against his fellow NightWings? Was this a way to get Clay into their clutches as well?

  “Let’s escape first and ask skeptical questions later,” said Kinkajou. She jumped into the air, wings flapping.

  “Sensible dragonet,” said Deathbringer. He gave Glory an unreadable look — teasing but worried, and self-satisfied but sweet all at once. “You can express your undying gratitude to me later. I’ll wait.”

  “Go ahead and hold your breath,” Glory suggested.

  “Up you go,” Clay said. He spread his wings so Glory could climb onto his back.

  She hesitated for a moment. Part of her said, You can do this yourself. You don’t need help. Just get your wings free and save your own scales.

  But there wasn’t time, and although she couldn’t trust Deathbringer, there was no one more trustworthy than Clay. She clambered onto his back, still holding the spear and awkwardly adjusting her balance without her wings.

  He was in the air almost before she could get her talons around his neck. She slipped sideways and nearly knocked him into the lava. Clay’s tail brushed the bubbling, red-hot river below and he lurched upward with a hiss of pain.

  “It’s all right,” he said quickly. “It’ll heal fast, don’t worry.”

  Fire-re sis tant scales like Clay’s would definitely have come in handy here, Glory thought, glancing down as he flew higher. She saw several other caves overlooking the lava river, but no snouts sticking out.

  “We have to get the other RainWings,” she shouted in Clay’s ear. “We have to set them all free.”

  “Now?” he asked. “We’ll be lucky if we make it out without getting caught.”

  “I can’t just leave them here,” she cried. “I promised Mangrove I’d find Orchid.”

  “And you did,” he said. “Now you know where she is, we can come back and get her. With backup.” He glanced over his shoulder and put on a burst of speed. “Lots and lots of backup.”

  Glory looked behind them as well and saw a cluster of NightWings standing on a high rocky ledge. Three of them were pointing at Clay and shouting to the others. Black-scaled heads were turning toward the sky all across the volcano.

  She also saw Kinkajou flapping madly to keep up with them. What she didn’t see was a certain dangerous know-it-all assassin.

  “Deathbringer’s not with us!” she called.

  “Of course not,” Clay called back. He swooped down between two curved stone columns and banked right. “His tribe can’t know he helped us.”

  Glory thought uneasily of the dragon she’d wounded, back in the prison cave. Surely he had seen Deathbringer and overheard their conversation. But really that was Deathbringer’s problem. “What happened to his mission? The one about kill ing us? Remember?”

  “Maybe he doesn’t want to anymore,” Clay said with a shrug.

  Suspicious, Glory thought. Or as Kinkajou would say, mega-suspicious.

  And yet she also felt a weird loss, like she wished she’d had a chance to say good-bye. She twisted to look back again, but he really wasn’t there. Ah, well. Maybe the next time he shows up to kill me.

  She realized that Clay was winging rapidly toward the black-sand beach that ringed the island at the base of the volcano. Twisted, leafless trees grew on the volcano’s slopes, like bones sticking out of the dirt. Beyond the beach, the ocean roared and churned, gray and unfriendly and speckled with foam.

  “Um, Clay?” Glory said. “We’re not flying back to the rainforest across that ocean, are we?”

  “No way,” Clay said. “I don’t even know which way the rest of Pyrrhia is, or how far. Do you?”

  “Nope,” Glory said. “But it makes sense to me that the NightWings live on an island — one that’s not on any maps. I would have thought they’d pick a nicer one, though. This place is ghastly.” She coughed, wondering if the smell of rotten eggs would ever clear out of her snout.

  Clay dove toward a cave halfway up a small rocky cliff at one end of the beach.

  “The passage to the rainforest is in there,” he called. “Get ready to fight.”

  “Always. Ready,” panted Kinkajou beside them. Glory opened her mouth and tasted the smoky air. She couldn’t see any guards on the beach below.

  “Didn’t you have to fight them on your way out of the tunnel?” she asked.

  “No — Deathbringer went ahead of me and distracted them. But they’ll be back by now.”

  “Also,” Kinkajou gasped. “Company. Behind.”

  Glory didn’t have to look back; she’d already heard the wingbeats, and she didn’t really want to know exactly how many NightWings were on their tails. She gripped the spear in her claws, imagining Morrowseer on the pointy end of it.

  The cave yawned wide in front of them. Clay didn’t slow down as he shot between the rocky walls. Glory blinked, her eyes adjusting to the darkness, and then she saw the light of a fire glowing up ahead.

  Four NightWings were gathered around the fire, each of them carrying one of the wicked-looking spears. The wrongness feeling emanated from a perfectly circular hole in the rock wall behind them. And they were clearly not planning on letting anyone get to it.

  We have to get past them fast, Glory thought. Or else we’ll have all the ones behind us to deal with as well.

  The first guard saw them coming, jumped up, and slammed into Clay. Glory catapulted over his head, dropping the spear and just missing the fire as she crashed into one of the other dragons. Talons seized her tail and wings and more talons fumbled for her snout. Not happening, Glory thought. No one would muzzle her weapon again.

  Her jaw sprang open and she swung her neck around, spraying venom at the guard who was trying to hold her down. Black droplets spattered across his chest. Screaming, he leaped back and stumbled into the fire, then fled toward the beach with smoke rising from his scales.

  The other two guards pounced on Glory from behind, wrestling her back down again. They were both huge, the size of Morrowseer, with metal armor buckled over their underbellies and strange helmets protecting their snouts. Glory’s face was pressed into the ground. She lashed her tail furiously, trying to smack them the way Tsunami would have, but one of the guards stepped on it and pinned it down.

  Glory struggled against the weight of the two dragons. Above her, Clay was battling the first NightWing. Their claws clashed and bouts of fire blasted through the air.

  Kinkajou, Glory thought. Where had she gone? Had she made it into the tunnel?

  The tiny dragonet suddenly popped up behind the guards, holding the spear Glory had dropped. She swung it hard and smacked one of the NightWings on the head with the blunt end. He tottered sideways with a yell, then whipped around with a murderous gleam in his eyes.

  “Kinkajou!” Glory shouted. “Use your venom!”

  “But —” Kinkajou said, dodging a swipe of the NightWing’s claws. “I don’t —”

  “Or the spear! The pointy end this time!”

  Kinkajou looked down at the spear with a surprised expression. She hefted it and jabbed it at the guard as he came at her again. He knocked it aside and thrust his own spear at her. Kinkajou yelped and Glory saw a streak of blood slashed across her neck.

  Glory clenched her talons with rage. How dare he. Kinkajou was just a tiny drago
net. Not only that, she was a RainWing, which meant she’d never been trained to fight.

  There was just one guard holding Glory down at the moment. She thought of Sunny’s tricks from battle training and stopped struggling. On top of her, the guard let out a pleased hiss.

  Glory let her scales ripple into the color of the rocks below her.

  “Foolish RainWing,” hissed the guard. “I can still feel you. I can still see your wing bindings.”

  Glory knew that, but she was hoping the strangeness of holding something he couldn’t see would make him slower. Taking a deep breath, she suddenly twisted herself into a tight spiral. The NightWing’s talons slipped on her scales, and she was able to get her tail free for a moment — long enough to swing it around and jab him sharply in the middle of his back.

  Sunny loved this move, and at first none of them had understood why. If she’d had a poisonous barb on her tail like other SandWings, it would have been terrifying — but with a harmless tail, what was the point?

  Then they’d each experienced it and discovered there was something freaky and unsettling about it. It felt like being hit by lightning at just the wrong spot. It was as if their scales knew they could have been badly injured — if there had been poison at the tip of that tail, it would have paralyzed their spines instantly and killed them a few moments later. So it was weirdly chilling, and an effective distraction in the middle of a fight.

  Glory had no idea if this would work when a RainWing did it to a NightWing, but it was worth a try.

  The guard stiffened as if he’d just been shocked by one of the electric eels in Queen Coral’s prison. It was only for a moment, but in that moment Glory was able to throw him off her and free her snout. She went straight for Kinkajou’s attacker, shooting venom at all the exposed scales she could see.

  He screamed and slammed back into the rocks. Glory saw another gash along Kinkajou’s side. The little dragonet was shaking, and her scales were ripples of pale green and white.

 
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