Excerpt for The Unborn Hero of Dragon Village by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






Copyright © 2018 Bendideia Publishing

January 2018

ebook ISBN-13: 978-0-9996861-4-0


All rights reserved.


Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher: www.ronesaaveela.com.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


Cover Design by Dmitry Yakhovsky, www.entaroart.com

Map and internal artwork by Nelinda, www.nelinda.com



Dedication


Many thanks to Owain and Rhys Jones, young beta readers of an early version of the Dragon Village story. Your enthusiasm was endearing. Here’s to hoping you enjoy the final rendering of Theo’s tale as much as the first.

Thanks also to the many young heroes of the world, especially the youth of Guard Up! who have come to appreciate Bulgarian lore.


Acknowledgments


Special thanks will always go to my dedicated group of critiquers: Alex, Erin, Aliya, and Jordan. You’ve seen me through so many revisions: the frustration and the joy. You’re always in my heart.

So many other Scribophile authors have added their words of wisdom to this labor of love. Thanks go to all of you.

Other thanks go to those who have had a hand with editing the book: Stephanie Eding and Taylor Tedford.

And I cannot forget Dmitry Yakhovsky, whose wonderful artwork graces the cover. You can find out more about him at his website: www.entaroart.com/


Characters


Theo: Twelve-year-old boy who sets out on a journey to rescue his sister from a dragon.

Pavel: Theo’s best friend who invents gadgets.

Nia: Theo’s twin sister.

Lamia: Three-headed female dragon.

Zmey: Male dragon. Lamia’s brother.

Old Lady Witch: Old woman in Selo whom people think casts spells.

Boo: Magpie Theo follows to Dragon Village.

Diva: Samodiva girl who lives in Dragon Village. Diva’s name means “wild.” “Samodiva” means “Wild alone.” From Bulgarian mythology, Samodivi were wild creatures who shied away from humans.

Sur: Diva’s deer-companion.

Bendis: Thracian goddess of the moon, often said to be the mother of the Samodivi.

Kosara: Guardian of the Znahar Tree.

Jabalaka: Man Lamia turned into a frog creature. “Jaba” is the Bulgarian word for “frog.”

Baba Yaga: Witch from Slavic folklore who lives in a house with chicken feet.

Kotka: Baba Yaga’s cat. “Kotka” is the Bulgarian word for “cat.”

Lesh: Vulture guarding one of Lamia’s souls.

Ruslana: Red-haired Rusalka (mermaid).

Dimana: Blonde Rusalka.

Vodna: Queen of the Rusalki.

Magura: Turtle librarian who lives in the Rusalki kingdom.

Morunduk: Evil octopus guarding one of Lamia’s souls.

Youda Stana: The leader of the Youdi (bad Samodivi), attended by an unnamed blonde and brunette.

Jega: A Kuker (mummer) who wields fire. The word “jega” means “hot” in Bulgarian.

Zima: A Kuker who has the power of freezing. The word “zima” means “winter” in Bulgarian.

Mraz: The oldest of the Kukeri brothers.

Zunitza: Samodiva Zmey loved.

Torbalan: Bulgarian demonic creature with great strength and capable of shape-shifting.

Sitara: Vurkolak (werewolf) guarding one of Lamia’s souls.

Zachary: Prisoner who was once a palace guard.

Vela: Servant girl in Lamia’s castle.




Glossary


Cherna Mountain: “Cherna” is the Bulgarian word for “black.” This is where the dragon castle is found.

Devil’s Throat: A cave in the western Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, said to be the entrance to Hades.

Dragon Village: Ancient name is Zmeykovo. Mystical land where mythological creatures live. Said to be at the end of the world.

Eniovden: Midsummer’s Day, celebrated on June 24.

Firebird: In Slavic mythology, a bird that can be both a blessing and a curse. Its feathers glow brightly, and some say the bird can see the future.

Harpy: Half-woman, half-bird creature from Thrace and found in Greek mythology.

Kaval: Shepherd’s pipe. A long, flute-like instrument that Samodivi like to dance to. They often make shepherds play the instrument until they drop dead from exhaustion.

Kuker (plural, Kukeri): Man who wears animal skins and huge bells that scare evil spirits. The tradition dates back to Thracian times.

Lamia: A female dragon with three dog-like heads. She is cruel and brings hail to destroy crops, as well as stopping the flow of water. In this story, “lamia” is used as a proper name.

Obrok: A sacred place where some believe ancient rituals were performed.

Paveltron: Pavel’s multi-purpose gadget.

Pazach: Bulgarian for “keeper.”

Rodina Forest: “Rodina” means “homeland” in Bulgarian. Named after a forest in the Strandja Mountains in southern Bulgaria.

Rusalka (plural, Rusalki): Bulgarian word for mermaids.

Rusalnaya nedelja: Rusalka Week. A time in early June when Rusalki are most dangerous.

Selo: Fictitious place along the Black Sea. Bulgarian word for “village.”

Samodiva (plural, Samodivi): Woodland nymph in Bulgarian lore. You may be more familiar with one of their other names: Veelas, like in the Harry Potter stories.

Smil: Magical flower harvested in Dragon Village.

Youda (plural, Youdi): Evil Samodiva who lives in forests and mountains. She has the power of witchcraft.

Vodnik (plural, Vodni): Slavic water creature that looks like an old man.

Vurkolak: Bulgarian word for “werewolf.”

Zandan: Prison in the dragon castle. Bulgarian word for “prison” or “dark place.”

Zmey: A male dragon. Villages throughout Bulgaria have invisible patrons who protect their villages. In this story, “zmey” is used as a proper name.

Znahar: Woman who heals with herbs. People sometimes call them witches because they are often clairvoyants as well.

Znahar Tree: A fictitious World Tree connecting the three realms: heavens, earth, and underworld.



Contents

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Characters

Glossary

Chapter 1: A Boy with Wings

Chapter 2: Magpie’s Secret

Chapter 3: Crazy, Winged Woman

Chapter 4: Wild Girl

Chapter 5: Something in the Water

Chapter 6: Whispers in the Dark

Chapter 7: Frightful Frog-Man

Chapter 8: A Strange House in the Woods

Chapter 9: Unexpected Visitor

Chapter 10: Trapped by a Vulture

Chapter 11: Unraveling Nature’s First Clue

Chapter 12: Forest of Souls

Chapter 13: The Power of Music

Chapter 14: Into Inky Depths

Chapter 15: Wicked Witches

Chapter 16: Giant, Furry Monsters

Chapter 17: Lightning Light

Chapter 18: Demon Forest

Chapter 19: Devil’s Throat

Chapter 20: Destruction of Beauty

Chapter 21: Dark and Dingy Dungeon

Chapter 22: Betrayal

Chapter 23: Visions, Dreams, or Reality?

Chapter 24: In the Morning Light

Author’s Note

About the Author



Chapter 1
A Boy with Wings

Theoooo. The beckoning call of the Samodiva stilled his feet, his name floating toward him like a whisper on the wind.

His muscles tense, he scanned the forest for the hostile woodland nymph, who hunted prey for her amusement. She was nowhere in sight. He opened his mouth to warn his friend, Pavel, a few feet in front of him, but closed it, not wanting to disclose their location.

Theoooo. Again, she summoned him, the sound closer.

Instinct told him to run, hide, before she enchanted him. But where was she?

He shivered as a flash of white flitted around the towering pines. Early-morning light filtered through the canopy of branches, casting red streaks across the nymph’s garment. She disappeared in a blur, dissolving like mist. His lips trembled.

Where had she gone?

The forest became eerily quiet as if the predator lurked nearby. Until this moment, he had thought stories about Samodivi were fairy tales, but perhaps the legends held a grain of truth.

A stick cracked. Another streak of white darted closer, concealing itself within the shadows of a gnarled oak.

Now wasn’t the time to speculate about the creatures if he wanted to live.

“Hide!” Theo rushed toward Pavel, gripping his friend’s wrist and pulling him behind a half-destroyed stone wall covered with ivy and blackberries.

No way would the Samodiva enchant them with her melodic voice if the stories were true.

Pavel whispered, “What’s the matter?”

“White flashes. S-s-samodivi!” He dropped a pair of mechanical wings on the ground and crossed his arms over his chest to keep them from shaking.

It was stupid to come to the Stone Forest so he could try to fly. Yes, the rocky hill was the highest point in the village, and the robust wind would launch him skyward—if the wings actually worked. But now that he huddled at the base of the ancient pagan site, goosebumps held a family gathering on his arms.

“Nonsense.” Pavel peered around the corner. “There’s gotta be a logical explanation for any white lights you saw—if you really did. Maybe gas escaping from the ground.”

“What about that ring of flowers we passed?” Theo’s breath hitched. “That’s gotta be where the shepherd was killed last week.”

Older residents in the village gossiped that small, white blossoms dotted the ground at the murder site—flowers that hadn’t flourished there before. They cited this as proof that the delicate feet of the nymphs had trod upon the soil.

“They’re just flowers. My mom’s got a bunch in her garden.”

“But he had a kaval clenched in his fist! That has to mean something,” Theo insisted.

Villagers claimed the Samodivi had summoned the man to play the flutelike instrument. Afterwards, they’d forced their prey to dance with them until the break of dawn when exhaustion overcame him. With a kiss, the old people said, the nymph stole the man’s last breath.

Theo, where are you? The nymph called him again.

“Did you hear—” Theo stopped speaking and pressed his back against the rough stone. Pavel wouldn’t believe him about the voice either.

Scattered throughout dense grass, broken rocks crackled beneath his feet. Overgrown blackberry bushes wedged between stones pricked his skin and snagged his clothes. Refusing to remove the thorns, Theo remained quiet until birds resumed chirping and animals scampered through nature’s debris.

“This is ridiculous.” Pavel shoved away from the stones and wiped dirt and twigs off his pants as he stood. “See? Nothing to worry about. Probably just a white rabbit. Have you been reading Alice in Wonderland? Going to see the Cheshire cat grinning next?”

Theo shook his head. “Forget I said anything. All those stories Mom’s been telling me—”

A gust of wind tugged at a dead limb on the old oak. With a slow creak, the branch groaned before crashing to the ground. A shrill screech followed.

“Who’s there?” Pavel whipped around toward the noise, planted his feet on the ground, and crossed his arms over his chest. “Stop playing games and come out.”

Dark curls appeared from behind the tree, and a girl wearing a white dress with red polka dots stepped into the open. “It’s just me.”

“It looks like Princess Nia is your forest nymph, Theo.” Pavel glared at Theo’s twin sister. “Why are you following us?”

Her voice quivered. “I ...”

Nia did act like a princess at times, expecting people to obey her commands, but right now, seeing her fear, Theo wanted to protect her. “You shouldn’t be here. Look at you! This isn’t a place to wear flip-flops. Your feet and legs are scratched from all the blackberry bushes. And ... what if a snake had bitten you?”

Nia’s eyes bugged out, and she scurried closer to Theo. “I don’t see any snakes.”

“I’m sure I can find one.” Pavel grinned as he tossed aside rocks.

“No, geek boy!” Still shivering, she stuck out her tongue.

Pavel did look the part of a geek with his wire-frame glasses. Plus all his inventions—like the wings Theo planned to try out today—added to that illusion. But, he also enjoyed the outdoors and sports, and had tons of friends.

“Go home, Nia.” Pavel pointed toward the path. “Theo and I have important things to do here. You should be picking magic weeds with the old ladies and all the other dumb, giggling girls.”

“Miracle herbs, not weeds, you dork.” Nia shook her head, and a single dark curl in the middle of her forehead lingered on her nose. “We already got them at dawn.”

“Well, go back and make a wreath from your herbs to protect you.” Pavel looked over the rim of his glasses and smirked. “We wouldn’t want a dragon to get you, would we?”

“You know there aren’t any dragons. It’s just tradition, something your family doesn’t understand,” Nia spat back.

“Why aren’t you at the Midsummer’s Day Fair?” Theo asked. “You’ve been excited about walking through the wreath since you saw it last year. Now that you’re twelve, you can participate.”

Theo had been bored last year, watching the women and girls twist herbs into a giant, gate-like wreath, but Nia had talked about it nonstop the rest of the day. He had no clue how stepping through a wreath was supposed to prevent dragons like Zmey and his sister, Lamia, from carrying off girls, but villagers had performed the ceremony for centuries. He grinned at the silly notion. Maybe it did work, because a dragon hadn’t kidnapped anyone he knew.

“Mom insisted I wear her mothball-smelling dress.” Nia’s eyes, black as a forest night, flashed. “My friends all have pretty new dresses. I should be able to wear whatever I want on my birthday.”

“You didn’t have to tag along with us,” Pavel said under his breath.

“I was trying to find somewhere to hide where Mom wouldn’t find me, and then I saw you guys take off.”

“Well, it’s Theo’s birthday, too, and we don’t want a girl around,” Pavel said.

“I’m staying.” Nia curled her lips into a smug smile as her eyes traveled to the wings by the stone wall. “If you don’t let me, I’ll tell Mom Theo’s trying to fly again.”

Theo clenched his fists. Why did Nia have to be here now? After all the failed attempts, he was certain he’d be able to fly today. Pavel had been working on the new wings for ages. They’d have to work.

Nia must be bluffing. She’d already said she was hiding from Mom. He wanted to say “Go ahead and tell,” but stopped as he looked around the forest. A niggling sensation told him something bad loomed on the horizon. Pretending he didn’t care, he shrugged. “Stay then.”

“Fine, just be quiet.” Pavel turned away and dug in his backpack.

Nia shielded her eyes from the sun. “How are we going to get to the top of the cliff?”

“I brought rock-climbing equipment,” Pavel said.

“I’m not doing that. I’ll get blisters. There has to be another way up.” Nia stomped off around the hill.

Pavel moaned. “Man, girls are so annoying.”

“Nia’s not always so bad.” Theo craned his neck to look up the steep hill. Even if his wings worked and he could fly to the top, he wouldn’t leave his sister behind. Nia might be a pain, but he didn’t want anything bad to happen to her. “I should follow her to make sure she doesn’t get hurt.”

“Theo, I found something,” Nia yelled.

He rushed toward her voice. She paced in front of a tangled web of ivy. “In there.” She pointed to the ivy.

A flat, diamond-shaped rock about a yard long lay at its base. Round holes like sockets had been hewn in a haphazard manner into the center, with a trough circling the edges. Had rain and ice formed the gouges, or had the holes been created to perform an ancient ritual? Maybe blood filled them from sacrifices. Theo shuddered as he stepped around the rock and cleared away roots from the cliff wall.

A fluttering of wings broke the silence. Theo ducked and Nia screamed when a black-and-white bird with a yellow beak fled the ivy and flew to a high branch of a pine. Its chattering scolded them.

Pavel rolled his eyes. “It’s just a bird.”

Theo peered behind the ivy. Chiseled stone steps led upward into a narrow tunnel. They looked like tracks left by monster-truck tires that had sunk into mud and solidified.

“We talked about lost civilizations in school.” Nia looked over Theo’s shoulder. “I wonder if this leads to Dragon Village. Old people in the village say there’s a portal near the Stone Forest.”

Pavel smirked. “Dragon Village is make-believe. You won’t find any dragons or Samodivi around here.”

“I know!” Nia rolled her eyes. “But it’d be cool to see what’s up there. Maybe treasure.”

“The only way to find out is to head up it,” Theo said, but he hesitated.

“Let’s do it then.” Pavel tore off more of the overgrown ivy from the archway and poked his head inside. “Hey, I was wrong!”

“What’d you find?” Theo asked.

Pavel backed away and whispered, “There are a bunch of skeletons in there. Must be people the Samodivi killed.”

“What?” Theo and Nia both yelled.

“Kidding.” Pavel laughed.

“Your jokes aren’t funny, Pavel,” Nia said.

Pavel shrugged as if nothing bothered him, but Theo knew better. He wouldn’t tell Nia that Pavel joked to cover up his fears.

“The tunnel’s empty, but kinda narrow,” Pavel said. “I’ll go first. If I can squeeze through, you should be able to fit with your chicken arms, Theo.” He entered the dark hole and climbed the carved steps.

Theo pulled the ivy aside. “Nia, you go next.”

She held back, her face paling. “What if snakes are in there?”

“Nah, probably only mice.” Theo grinned.

She swatted his arm. “You know I hate those, too.”

“It’ll be okay. I’ll be right behind you.”

Nia took a small step, silent as a shadow.

Theo followed her into the passage. He wheezed from the steep climb and the thickness of the musty air. Was this how a dungeon smelled?

His feet ached. How long had he been climbing? He swiped on his phone. At least a half hour. He stopped to let his racing heart slow. A glimmer of light at the top seemed distant. He better hurry. Nia was already far ahead of him.

Salty gusts replaced the dankness as he approached the top of the stairwell. Theo stepped out of the tunnel onto a mossy plateau and drew in a refreshing breath. Light blinded him, and he blinked. His vision had almost adjusted to the sunlight when Nia screamed.

Theo rushed to her side. “What’s the matter?”

“That.” Pavel let out a nervous laugh as he pointed. “We thought it was real.”

Theo’s eyes bulged.

A marble statue of a dragon about fifteen feet tall appeared frozen in the midst of battle. It must be Zmey, Selo’s patron, who protected the village according to the old people. The dragon’s huge jaw gaped, ready to spit fire. Massive wings curled at its side as if the beast had slowed to land. The tips nearly touched the dark limestone base the statue rested on.

Looking at Nia, Pavel laughed. “I bet you wish you’d gone to the protection ceremony now.”

Red splotches crept up her neck and face. “It’s not funny. Theo, take me home, please. I don’t feel good.”

Theo tore his gaze from the magnificent creature. “I—”

“Go home by yourself, Princess,” Pavel said. “You shouldn’t have followed us if you didn’t want to be here.”

Nia got up close to Pavel’s face and yelled, “I’m not a princess!”

She and Pavel continued to bicker.

Theo sighed, not able to get their attention. He hoped Nia’s anger lessened her fear. Leaving Pavel and Nia to argue, he stepped closer to the statue. His mouth gaped in awe. The dragon’s wings, which stretched out like a bat’s, made his hands tremble. So large and powerful.

Pavel nudged him. “Hey, Theo, come on. Stop staring at the statue. Let’s try your wings.”

“What about Nia? I have to take her home.”

“Nah, she’s fine. Got over her fit and is looking for ancient treasure.” Pavel removed his glasses, blew on the lenses, and wiped away the fog. “Put your wings on.”

“Pavel,” Theo said, his voice a hoarse whisper, “I have to have dragon wings.”

“Let’s see how the ones I made work first.”

Theo tore his gaze from the statue and took in the rest of the area. The Stone Forest wasn’t actually made of trees. Seven megaliths surrounded a terrace that had been formed by volcanic activity eons ago. The stones towered over the village, looking like ancient Thracian gods from below. On top of each, a carved horse head stared away from the center of the circle, as if keeping watch. One column had broken, the toppled half lying smashed on the ground. A black-and-white bird with a yellow beak and a long tail feather perched on the upright half. Was it the same bird he’d frightened from the tunnel?

“Theo, I think that wrecked stone is high enough for you to jump from,” Pavel said.

“Can you help me put on the wings?”

“Sure.”

Theo snapped the braces over his arms and held them out straight. White feathers tickled his face. After Pavel tightened the braces in back, Theo walked toward the shattered remains of the stone. The bird squawked and flew away as Theo clambered to the top of the upright half, almost slipping on a surface worn smooth from years of exposure to sea storms. The wind had grown teeth, and the salty mist bit his cheeks. He drew his wing-clad arms to his chest to stop shivering. The metal from the braces dug into his shoulders.

“Pavel, are you sure I can fly? The wings feel heavy.” Theo stretched out his arms, the weight pulling them down. “I thought feathers were supposed to be light.”

“They are. The braces make them heavier.” Pavel pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I made them as light as I could using melted magnesium and nanoparticles the way an internet article said. Scientists say it makes airplanes lighter.”

“How’d you get all that stuff?”

“Well ... I couldn’t find those exact ingredients. I substituted stuff from the science room at school, but I know they’ll work.”

Would they? Now that Theo was standing here, he wasn’t so sure. He looked toward the ground. It was farther than he wanted to jump.

“Those wings won’t let you fly, Theo,” Nia said. “None of Pavel’s other designs have worked. All they do is make you look like a stork.”

Theo flinched.

Pavel gave a half shrug. “Girls don’t know anything about science.”

“I may not be a geek like you, but I do know feathers glued to a piece of metal won’t make Theo a bird.” Nia swiped aside a curl from her forehead. “My brother may be small, but there’s no way those wings will let him fly.”

Theo tuned out Pavel and Nia as they continued to hurl insults at one another. Why couldn’t two of the people he cared most about get along? He let his gaze drift to the scenery.

The height of the broken stone let him soak up the panoramic view. Mountains sloped toward the Black Sea. Nestled in their shadows, white houses with red roofs patched the land. Beyond them, the water stretched to the horizon. Somewhere out there, his father had been lost on the night Theo and Nia were born.

He closed his eyes. The sea pulled at invisible threads, tugging him closer. Come to me. I’ll show you the way home, the crashing waves seemed to murmur. Or was it the deceitful siren’s song of the Rusalki, the mermaids of the deep, whom many older villagers alleged had lured his father to a watery grave?

What he’d give to know what his dad had been like. Was Theo anything like him? Mom refused to speak of the matter, even though he and Nia had asked about him many times. The villagers kept silent, too, as if mentioning the dead was taboo. It would help Theo know who he was himself, why he differed so much from the other children of Selo. He wanted to fit in, be like them, but he stuck out with his fiery-red hair and pale complexion.

“Theo, Theo!”

Was that the sea calling his name?

His eyes fluttered open. Not the sea. Nia.

“This is dangerous. Look how high up you are.” She thrust her hands on her hips. “Are you going to listen for once and get down from there?”

“Hurry up.” Pavel tapped his phone. “I’m ready to start the stopwatch.”

Theo looked from Nia to Pavel. Sighing, he pumped the wings for several seconds, then stopped on the upward thrust and lowered his arms. Fear of success overwhelmed him more than thoughts of failure or getting hurt. He’d be even more of a freak if he could fly, more alienated from everyone. A strange boy made even stranger by his crazy dreams. But, oh, the freedom of soaring through the air—

“Come on, Theo,” Pavel said. “Take a deep breath and flap your arms slowly. Use the power of the wind.”

“Don’t do it, Theo,” Nia begged. “It’s too high.”

Theo hesitated, then resumed flapping.

“Fine, Icarus!” Nia shouted. “If you’re dumb enough to listen to Pavel, then you’ll get hurt—again.”

Nia’s taunt stung. The boys in Selo ridiculed him by calling him that name. Even though Icarus, the boy from Greek mythology, had been courageous, he’d been foolish by flying too high. The sun melted the wax on his wings, and he fell into the sea. That nickname reminded Theo that people thought he was foolish, too. With a strained voice, he said, “I hope a dragon takes you away.”

“That’s not funny, Theo.” Tears formed on Nia’s eyelids. Her voice softened so he could barely hear her words. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

Theo’s gut clenched. Nia didn’t understand why he had to succeed. He turned away.

“Come on, Theo.” Pavel looked at his phone. “We don’t have all day.”

At the count of three, Theo took a deep breath and leapt from the stone.

The wings wrenched down his arms. He pushed to keep them moving, but he crashed onto dirt and pebbles, banging his knees and scraping his palms. The tinny sound of metal grating against rocks echoed in his ears. He groaned and rolled onto his back. Floating above him, a cloud of dust mingled with feathers ripped from the twisted wings.

“You did it!” Pavel shouted. “I told you they’d work.”

Nia scoffed. “That wasn’t flying. That was falling with wings.”

Pavel stuck the phone under Theo’s nose. “You were airborne three seconds longer than the last time.”

“I jumped from a car roof before.” Theo sat up and rubbed his aching knees. “Besides, I think you started the timer early.”

“Theo!” Nia scowled at him. “I told you you’d get hurt. Look, your hands are bloody. Mom’s going to be mad.” She pulled a tissue from her purse and handed it to him.

He blotted the scrapes, shaking his arms afterwards. The misshapen wings flapped like a grotesque creature. “Pavel, help me out of these.”

Pavel removed a black, octagon-shaped gadget from his backpack. “Let’s see. Which Paveltron tool will work best?”

“Paveltron? A new invention?” Theo held out his hand. “Let me see.”



Nia edged closer, snatching the device from Pavel. She pressed the plastic numbers. “What kind of dumb thing is this, geek boy?”

“Give it back!” Pavel reached for it.

She shook her head. “Tell me how it works.”

“It’s a magic nine square. You have to make it add up to fifteen in each direction.”

Nia slid the one to nine buttons around. “This is impossible.” Scowling, she shoved it back into Pavel’s hand. “That’s so stupid. Why do you need a keypad? Can’t you just have a button open it like a normal person would?”

“It keeps people like you off my stuff.”

Theo flapped the broken wings. “Can you two stop arguing and get these off me?”

Pavel’s fingers flew over the buttons, moving them in and out of an empty square at the side until he arranged them in the correct order. Then he pressed the plus sign on the bottom right, and the device opened, revealing a set of miniature tools.

“So much work for a screwdriver.” Nia grabbed a pointed stick from the ground, kneeled behind Theo, and pressed against a brace until it cracked open. She did the same for the other side.

The broken wings fell to the ground.

Pavel put the screwdriver back and pressed the minus key on the bottom left. The digits rearranged themselves to standard keypad order. He picked up one of the wings. “Pig piddle. Look at ’em. But I think I can fix them if you want to try again later.”

“Don’t be stupid, Theo.” Nia stalked toward the statue. “He’s not going to get them to work—ever.”

“She’s right.” Theo pulled himself up from the ground and wiped dirt off his pants. “Let’s look at the dragon statue and come up with a better design.”

Nia kneeled by the limestone base and rubbed her fingers over an engraving of a white dragon and a golden one, locked in battle like yin and yang. “I wonder if it’s real gold.”

“Maybe,” Pavel said. “I wish I’d brought my metal-testing kit.”

Half-listening, Theo gazed at the yellow, lizard-like eyes of the statue. The creature stared back. He shuddered and rubbed his hand on the magnificent wings.

The cool stone rippled beneath his fingertips.

He jerked his hand away, staring at the spot. It was still white stone. Or was it? His heart hammering, he let his fingers hover over the statue, then lowered them to the stone.

The wing softened and stretched beneath his caress. A deep voice rumbled like thunder, “Theodore, I’ve been waiting for you.

He snatched his hand from the statue. Blood pounded in his ears. The voice seemed everywhere at once. He looked around, but no one was there, except Nia and Pavel. His sister took pictures of the statue, while Pavel sketched the wings.

Where was the speaker?

Gusts of wind blew, moaning like ghosts.

“Hey, guys. D-did you hear that?” Theo asked.

“I can barely hear you above the wind,” Nia shouted.

“S-someone spoke to me.”

Pavel shrugged and returned to his notebook. “Wasn’t me.”

Lightning flashed far out at sea, followed moments later by the rumble of thunder. That must have been what he’d heard.

Theo wiped sweaty hands on his pants and glanced at the spot on the dragon’s wing he swore had become as soft as leather. Not a single crack marred the stone. He had to touch the wing again to be sure.

Keeping his eyes steeled on the spot, he jabbed the statue with one finger, then yanked it back. Only cool stone.

Dark clouds passed over the sun, and the wind picked up. A noise rumbled in the distance. Theo peered toward the Black Sea where lightning flashed over the water. Legends told about how Zmey would drift to sleep when thunderstorms approached, so his spirit could battle his sister, Lamia. Chills ran down Theo’s arms. Was the spirit of Zmey, their invisible guardian, really in the statue ready to fight Lamia?

“Hey, guys, storm’s coming in. We should get out of here,” Theo said.

“Almost done.” Pavel continued drawing.

“Hurry up.” Nia clutched her purse and scooted nearer to Theo.

Thunder rolled closer, rattling the statue. Lightning streaked across the sky. Theo flinched, almost believing Lamia and Zmey were battling amid the crackling air and flashes of light. Almost. He laughed nervously.

Of course, dragons didn’t exist. It was just an approaching storm. He leaned against the statue to steady his nerves.

For a brief moment, the thunder took a breath.

Nia’s phone rang, and she held the display for Theo to see. “Mom.”

He cringed. “Don’t tell her where we are!”

Nia shook her head and answered. Mom’s angry voice screeched from the phone.

A creaking at the base of the statue captured Theo’s attention. The carving of the two dragons rotated clockwise, slowly at first, but then picked up speed, pulsating colors like a kaleidoscope. Symbols along the outer edge swirled into a black blur, while the whirling dragons radiated a golden glow.

Theo trembled and stepped back from the statue. This was crazy! He couldn’t be imagining all these things. He shouted, “The carving’s glowing!”

Without looking, Pavel raised his finger. “I’m talking with my father. He says we’ve gotta get back before the storm hits.”

The symbols on the engraving morphed into words: The playful magpie can help you find the key.

A chill like tiny feet raced along Theo’s spine. He blinked rapidly, and the message disappeared. What magpie? What key? “Pavel. The dragon ... I think it’s trying to tell us something.”

A purple light pulsed within the statue, and its eyes flashed green.

“P-Pavel!” Theo pulled on his friend’s shirt. “Look at the dragon!”

Pavel ended his call. “Huh? Must be the lightning.” His eyes became round like saucers when he looked at the glowing dragon. “That’s ... not possible. Maybe gas underneath it.”

A loud crack of thunder boomed overhead, and the light from the statue disappeared.

“Let’s get out of here.” Theo looked around. “Where’d Nia go?”

“Theo, look!” His sister shrieked as she ran to his side and pointed upward.

He craned his neck to look at the sky. A shower of fireballs plunged toward the village, followed by deafening thunder.

“What was that?” Pavel asked.

The air chilled as more clouds gathered, making it as dark as night. A howling wind ripped through the pillars. Chunks of hail, twisted by the wind, pelted them.

“Run for cover!” Theo shouted as he dragged Nia under the statue.

A deluge of rain gushed down the dragon’s wing, which protected them from the storm like an umbrella. A whoosh of hot air swept Theo’s broken wings from the ground. Like a crazed dancer, they twirled in a whirlwind before darkness swallowed them.

Ravaging winds uprooted trees. A fireball split the darkness directly overhead. Burning wood filled the air, stinging Theo’s eyes. A gigantic bellows roared, followed by an explosion of fire over the statue. Theo covered his eyes and screamed until his voice was hoarse.

The roaring ceased. Theo’s heart thumped loud in the lull. The silence was deafening, almost too loud, like a beast taunting its prey.

“Pavel?” Theo shouted as he clung to his sister.

“I’m okay,” Pavel’s breathy reply came from the other side of the statue.

Tears streamed down Nia’s cheeks. “I’m scared.”

“I’ll protect you.” He hugged her tighter, her body shivering against his.

A dark shape filled the sky and streaked closer. The air crackled, and jets of fire raced toward them. Theo threw himself in front of Nia as flames licked the side of the statue. Intense heat engulfed his face and body. He screamed. His grip on his sister loosened.

“Let me go!” Nia clawed at his sleeve as something ripped her away.

Hot, rancid air blasted Theo, and his vision blurred.

“Nia!” He reached through the blinding storm, but grazed only rough, scaly skin. Sharp claws dug into his flesh and flung him against the cold marble. His head pounded the stone.

“Theo!” Nia’s cry faded as his world went dark.


Chapter 2
Magpie’s Secret

Theo woke with his cheek cooling in a slimy puddle. Next to him, water trickled from the statue, droplets splashing his body. He grasped the tip of the dragon’s wing to pull himself up, but yanked his hand away and stared at the beast. It was still marble, not a living creature. He sat up and wiped the side of his face with his shirtsleeve. Blood trickled down his hand from a gash in his forearm, and a metallic taste burned his mouth.

Pavel shuffled over and sat by his side, his head down and his hand shaking as he mumbled into his phone.

“Nia?” Theo looked around.

She didn’t reply.

His head spun, and his ears rang. No, not his ears. A phone. He pulled his from his back pocket. Five missed calls from Mom, but the noise wasn’t his. He’d set the tone to silent. The muted jingle came from behind the statue.

On wobbly legs, he stumbled to the back where the ringing stopped, then started again like a persistent mosquito.

“Nia?” He peered into the forest, but his sister wasn’t nearby.

The tip of her now-silent phone stuck out of her purse. Beside it lay a golden object the size of his palm. Rounded on one end and pointed on the other, it blazed as bright as a flame.

Theo reached for it. The moment his fingers grazed its surface, intense cold shot up his arm. He shivered but held on, turning it over. Lines crisscrossed one side, which was rough-textured, while the other side was smooth. He raised it toward the sun, and it shone with iridescent colors.

What was it?

“Nia!” he yelled.

Pavel placed a hand on his shoulder. “That was some scary storm.”

“Nia’s gone,” Theo whispered.

“Figures. My brother said he’s coming for us, so she better hurry back. He hates waiting.” Pavel grinned as he swiped his phone off. “You know, I bet global warming caused the storm, and it melted her, too.”

“That’s not funny.” Theo scowled. “She didn’t leave. Someone took her.”

“What? No way.” Pavel shook his head. “No one else was here. She’s gotta be around.”

“I don’t think so.” Theo unclasped his hand and held out the golden object. “This wasn’t here before.”

“Probably just a piece of a broken vase. Or ...” Pavel peered closer, his eyes brightening. “It could be Thracian treasure.”

“No. It looks like ...” Theo placed the object next to the statue and inhaled a sharp breath.

Pavel laughed. “You think it’s a dragon scale? From a real dragon?”

“I-I don’t know. It was pitch black.” Theo wiped tears from his face. “Sharp claws dug into me. Look.” Theo turned his arm so Pavel could see the ragged gash weeping blood.

“Nia did that?”

“No! Not her.” Theo rubbed the skin around the wound. “Something grabbed her. I tried to hold onto her, but I couldn’t.”

Pavel paled. “Do you think an animal got her?”

“I-I think Zmey took her.”

“That’s nonsense. It was just a storm.” Despite his words, Pavel’s voice trembled. “If she’s missing, we have to call the police—”

“You have too many flies in your head, Theodore,” a voice boomed.

“Did you hear that this time? The dragon spoke again!” Theo pounded the statue’s immobile wing. “Where’s my sister?”

Pavel shook his head as the creature remained silent, its gaze lifeless. “That was—”

“Where is she?” Theo shouted.

A hand clasped Theo’s shoulder and pulled him around. He screamed.

“Hey, kiddo, calm down. Sorry I startled you,” Pavel’s brother said. “Let’s get you guys home. I’ll let everyone know Nia’s missing, and we’ll look for her.”

Theo kicked rocks along the path as he walked down the hill toward the village. Ahead of him, Pavel and his brother gestured to each other, probably arguing. Why had he let his sister stay when he and Pavel didn’t know what to expect in the Stone Forest? He should have brought her home when she asked and returned later to try out the wings. How was he going to find her now? Where would a dragon take her?

A scratchy voice whispered behind him, “Theodore.”

“What?” He spun around and stifled a scream as he faced a woman wearing a hooded cloak. Old Lady Witch.

“Bring back my lost child,” she whispered.

“Pavel,” he called as he scuttled away, but the word stuck in his throat. His friend was too far ahead of him, disappearing around a bend in the path.

The witch leaned closer, pointing her wooden cane in his direction. The black handle seemed to writhe like a snake as she shook it in his face. Sunlight hit knots in the dark wood, and they flashed like embers.

A chill spread over him, and he took a step back. Children in the village told horror stories about Old Lady Witch. Any time she spoke to someone, that person disappeared, never to return. Rumors floated around the village, saying she’d even sold her own child in return for magical powers. Had she, and not the dragon, abducted Nia? Did she want to trade Nia to get her child back? His heart felt like it would explode from his chest.

She had called him by his name. He took another step away from her. “How do you know who I am?”

Old Lady Witch moved closer and repeated in an even lower voice, “Bring back my lost child.”

“I-I don’t know where your child is.”

A groan came from deep within her throat. “In Dragon Village ... with your sister.”

Theo rubbed sweaty hands down his pants. “H-how do you know that? Did you take her?”

“Come with me, and I’ll show you.” She shuffled past him, disappearing into the forest.

Show him what? Nia? He felt like Hansel, but without Gretel. Was she after him also? Maybe she needed two children before she could get her child back.

Should he follow the witch? He wouldn’t know if she had Nia unless he did. If she didn’t have his sister, then ... a dragon really could have kidnapped her.

Theo slapped the side of his head. This was his fault. He had told Nia he wished Zmey would take her. He had to find her, fix his mistake.

He glanced toward the path where Pavel and his brother had gone. Empty. Not even the sound of their voices trailed back to him. Taking a deep breath, Theo stepped off the path and into the forest.

The trees and brush grew denser as the path slipped farther away. A tangle of branches blocked the sun, giving the illusion of a sinister cave. Only speckles of light flashed like fireflies. He peered into the darkness and listened for Old Lady Witch’s footsteps.

Nothing. She could barely walk. How had she gotten so far ahead?

He passed a ring of flowers like the ones he’d seen on the way to the Stone Forest. Maybe this was the real place the shepherd had been murdered. Theo shuddered as an image flitted through his mind of the man, his mouth frozen in a scream, with the kaval clutched in his hand.

He should turn back. But ... Nia depended on him. He had to keep going.

Moss softened his footsteps. The thick cover of branches cut off the breeze, intensifying the odor of decaying leaves. Bushes rustled near him, and creatures scurried among the trees.

A branch cracked like rifle fire, shattering the stillness of the forest. Theo sprinted ahead, his heart thudding against his chest. After several minutes, he stopped to rest by a huge walnut tree. Wings fluttered on an overhead branch. A black-and-white bird with a yellow beak flew toward him and let out a raucous caw, sending Theo racing deeper into the woods.

Was the bird Old Lady Witch? Had she been watching him—and Nia—at the Stone Forest?

He ran until his sides ached and his breath came out in gasps.

Which way now?

He slowed his pace, letting his breath return to normal. The bird cawed again and whooshed overhead, disappearing into the blackness.

Theo shivered. Gulping down his fear, he took a tentative step forward. Maybe he should turn around and find Pavel instead. He looked over his shoulder. Trees upon trees all around, with no path visible. He had to follow the bird, or he’d be completely lost. After he’d taken more steps, a faint scent of smoke mixed with damp earth drifted on the wind. This had to be the right way.

A loud “Waak” startled Theo, and he jumped. The bird returned and sat on a limb a few feet in front of him, staring into his eyes. With a tilt of its head, it flew deeper into the forest, landing on another branch. It called out again.

“I’m coming.” Theo dragged his feet.

By the time he reached the tree, the bird flapped its wings and flew ahead.

“Wait!” He dashed after it.

He hadn’t run far when the trees thinned, and light streamed through the branches. The scent of burning wood grew stronger. Smoke swirled from a chimney on a red-tiled roof. Theo slowed his pace when the bird perched on a flower box filled with geraniums outside a second-story window. Curtains fluttered around the weathered, pine slats.

The house looked ... normal, like many of those in the older section of town, built when the Ottoman Empire ruled the land. For safety in those turbulent times, the lower level was constructed of rough stone, with only a single door for entry. That door now creaked as it swung in the breeze. If he entered, it would be his only means of escape.

His lips trembled as he pressed himself against the wall. Inside, dragging feet came closer. The bird was still on the flower box; it couldn’t be the witch. Maybe it was her pet or a familiar to help her cast spells.

The bird flew from the flower box, landed next to Theo, and made its loud noise again.

The witch poked her head out the door and stared at him. “No need to hide. Come in.”

“Thanks a lot for giving me away,” Theo mumbled to the bird.

It was too late to change his mind now. He walked into the witch’s house.

She closed the door behind him and removed her hood.

Theo blinked. He had expected her to be ancient, with stringy hair, a face covered with warts, and a crooked nose. Her dark hair was a tangled mess and worry lines creased her brow, but her nose was straight and her face kind. She looked around Mom’s age. Old, but not ancient.

“A fly’s going to get in there,” the witch said.

“Huh?” Theo said, before understanding. He closed his mouth.

He snuck a peek around the room as she hung up her cloak. A framed landscape of villas with mountains in the background hung on the whitewashed walls above a stone fireplace. Blue embroidered pillows decorated a sectional couch, which faced a TV. Clean tiles lined the floor.

The witch laughed. “You look disappointed. Were you expecting to see spider webs and a flying broom?”

“I ... Aren’t you a witch?” he whispered.

She sighed. “I’m a mother who’s lost her daughter, the way you’ve lost your sister.”

“Y-your lost child?” Theo said. Or had she truly traded her child for witch’s magic?

She held out her hand. “Let me see the dragon scale.”

Theo hesitated. Had the bird spied on him to tell her about the golden scale? It was the only proof he had about what had happened to Nia.

She kept her hand steady in front of him. “I’ll give it back. I want to be sure it’s real before I tell you my story.” Her gaze pierced him with compassion and understanding. “No one believed me either.”

Theo nodded and laid the scale in her palm. “I think Zmey took her.”

Grasping her cane, the woman hobbled closer to the fireplace and examined the scale. “As expected, it’s not Zmey’s.”

“But ... it has to be!” Theo clenched his fists. “It’s the same as the scales on the statue.”

“Come closer. Let me show you something.” She set the scale on the fireplace mantle and picked up a jewelry box, unfastening the cover.

Theo squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them. An identical golden scale lay on the velvet lining. “Where did you find that?”

The woman set the box on a table and ran her fingers over a picture of an infant. “My daughter was stolen twelve years ago on Midsummer’s Day.”

An uneasy feeling stirred in his stomach. He was twelve. That was the day he was born.

“My little flower was only a few months old.” With a faraway look in her eyes, she clutched the picture to her chest. “Why didn’t they protect her? I swore to keep their secret.”

“Who? What secret?”

The witch lowered herself onto a rocker, all the while staring at the photograph. “The secret of the Samodivi.”

His heart sped up. If dragons were real, of course, nymphs could be, too. “Why would they tell you a secret? I-I thought they killed humans and took their eyes.”

“Some do, but not all.” She raised her tear-stained face. “I became their half-blood sister one night. They taught me the healing secrets of herbs and swore to protect my family. In return, they asked me to keep a package safe.” Her voice choked. “I kept my promise. Why didn’t they protect my daughter?”

“What happened to her?”

“A dragon stole her!”

Theo took a step back. “H-how do you know?”

“I found that dragon scale in her crib.”

“How could a dragon get inside your house?”

“They’re shape-shifters and can take on human form.”

“But ... why would Zmey want a baby?” Theo asked. “Doesn’t he usually steal girls he can marry?”

“I told you it wasn’t Zmey. He protects people.” Hard lines formed around her eyes. “The other beast. His cruel sister, Lamia!”

Theo stumbled back, falling onto a chair. His breath caught in his throat. Zmey taking Nia would be bad, but not as horrible as Lamia kidnapping her. Mom had told him legends about Lamia drinking children’s blood.

Old Lady Witch cradled her head in her hands. “After my daughter disappeared, a drought came. The old people said Lamia had dried up the water in our wells, rivers, and lakes.”

Legends told about Lamia hurling hail onto crops. The dragon dried up the water in the springs, trying to gain control of the land from her brother, Zmey. She would release the water only if a child was sacrificed.

“But a dragon took your daughter before the drought. Lamia would have demanded a sacrifice after she dried up the water, wouldn’t she?”

“I know it doesn’t make sense, but the scale ... it’s golden—Lamia’s color. Zmey is white.” Old Lady Witch held the picture of the dark-haired infant toward Theo. A heart-shaped birthmark adorned the baby’s shoulder. “Please take this. Help me find her.”

“Me? What can I do?”

“Find the way to Dragon Village. I’ve looked for so long, but discovered nothing.” She leaned forward, hands outstretched. “You want to find your sister, and I have to know if my daughter’s still alive.”

Theo looked into Old Lady Witch’s pleading eyes. “I don’t know how to get there.”

She closed his hand around the photo. “There has to be a way. A map or something.”

Theo slumped back into the chair and mumbled, “All the message said was that a magpie could help me find the key.”

The witch raised her eyebrows. “What message?”

Scooting his chair closer, he revealed what had happened at the Stone Forest, along with the message about the magpie.

“Of course.” She smiled. “The magpie is the Samodivi’s messenger. It’s the only non-magical creature that knows how to get to Dragon Village. It must be the one that was outside with you when you arrived.”

“That was a magpie?” The ones that lived near the Black Sea were all black and had black beaks. Where had this one come from? Theo jumped up from the chair and rushed to the open door.

“Waak!” The bird spread its wings and darted into the forest.

“Wait! I need to know how to get to Dragon Village!” Theo’s hope of finding Nia disappeared with the bird.

While he stared into the darkness where the magpie had disappeared, Old Lady Witch shuffled behind him. A door creaked, and herbal scents filled the house, along with muted scraping noises. Theo turned at the tapping of the witch’s cane against the floor.

“Here, take this.” She held a fluffy, white blanket tied with a green ribbon.

“What is it?”

“The secret the Samodivi left me.”

“Why do you want me to have it?”

“Take it to the Samodivi. I don’t know why they didn’t help me. Maybe they couldn’t.” She extended the blanket. “I think the magpie will help you find the way to Dragon Village.”

He hesitated.

“Please.” Her eyes beseeched him.

“But the magpie is gone. How will I find my way?”

“I’m sure it’ll be back.”

His hands trembling, he took the bundle and untied the ribbon. Inside lay a long, wooden kaval and a leather quiver holding a silver arrow. He reached to touch the unusual weapon.

A loud “Waak!” came from the threshold. Theo jumped, spinning around.

The magpie hopped outside, then flew back into the forest. Clutching the package to his chest, Theo ran after the bird faster than he’d ever run before.

“Find her, please. Bring her back,” the witch shouted.

On and on he ran until his legs ached.

The trees thinned. Shouts and laughter of children reached him. This part of the forest was close to the soccer field. Theo closed his eyes for a moment and uttered a soft “Thank you” to no one in particular. If he lost the bird, he could at least find his way home.

He tripped over roots and fell, hitting his head on a tree trunk. His vision blurred.

A raspy voice said, “I’ve found him! The one who can save Dragon Village.

“Who’s talking about Dragon Village?” Theo put his hands by his side and pushed himself up to stand, but collapsed. The trees spun in circles.

A high-pitched voice answered the raspy one, “I’ve never been there. Will you let me show him the way to the gate, Mother?

The voices came from above. Two magpies sat on a branch of the old oak: the one from the witch’s house, plus a smaller one. Why could he understand what they said? He struggled to his knees, straining to hear more.

The larger bird—the mother—shook her head. “I don’t know. It could be dangerous.

Please, please, please?” The son hopped on the branch, clicking his yellow beak.

Okay, but be careful,” the mother said with a sigh. “The gate is hidden at the Stone Forest. The boy has the key. You’ll have to help him open the portal.

Pavel crashed through the woods. “Theo, what happened? My brother and I thought you were behind us. Now everyone’s out looking for you and Nia.”

“Did you hear that?” Theo pointed to the tree branch.

“What?” Pavel looked up.

“Magpies! Up there.” Theo spoke in a hushed tone.

“The branch is empty.” Pavel shook his head.

“They were there. Talking. Honest.”

“Talking? First the dragon statue speaks to you, now birds. I think you’re making this stuff up.”

Theo stood and, still woozy, leaned against the tree. “They said the gate to Dragon Village is at the Stone Forest.”

“You’re crazy,” Pavel said. “Let’s go help find Nia, not some gate to a place that doesn’t exist.”

“It’s real,” Theo said. “I’m sure it is. That’s where the dragon took Nia.”

“No way—”

“Listen to me.” Theo held his hand out to stop Pavel. He explained what had happened at the witch’s house.

“You’re too gullible.” Pavel shook his head. “She’s insane. You can’t believe anything she says.”

“But what if it’s true?” Theo said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I have to try to find Dragon Village. I’m going back to the Stone Forest.”

“Cat hairballs. Shouldn’t we let the adults look for her—wherever she might be?”

“No, I ...” Guilt ate at Theo. He hadn’t protected Nia. Instead, he’d wished a dragon would capture her, and one had. “I have to make things right.”

“I can’t let you go back there alone. I’ll come, too.” Pavel’s eyes glistened. “Some of my inventions can protect us if that crazy witch comes back.”

***

Later that afternoon, Theo trudged behind Pavel through the narrow passageway, both their backpacks filled to the brim with clothes, food, gadgets, and other necessities. Pine scented the air at the Stone Forest, mixed with earthy traces from the storm. The circle of megaliths cast long shadows like a horde of giants. Grains of color swirled through the rocks, making them look alive.

Theo set down his backpack and the quiver Old Lady Witch had given him. “Let’s find the gate.”

He examined the engraving of the two dragons on the limestone base. It looked familiar. Of course! He hadn’t noticed before because he’d been more interested in the statue. He pulled out a chain from around his neck, removing a silver medallion he’d had all his life. Mom had told him it belonged to someone special—probably his father. Each of the medallion’s seven sides had runes carved into the teeth. Two dragons battling in the center were identical to the engraved ones on the limestone base.

It had to be the key. He laid the medallion over the engraving and gave it a gentle push.

No gate opened, and the dragons didn’t move to reveal a new message.

What else? The answer had to lie somewhere on the dragon.

He poked around the statue. No buttons or levers lay hidden under the dragon’s wings. He stepped away and stared at the creature. Its eyes remained cold and lifeless. Could he reach them? Maybe they held the key to getting to Dragon Village.

“Hey, Pavel. Can you—”

“Waak!” A small magpie perched on the broken stone pillar.

“That’s the son,” Theo said. “He’s supposed to help us.”

Pavel grinned. “Ask him where the gate is. You said you heard him talking earlier today.”

“I did. How else would I have known to come back here?”

“Come on. Try again.”

“Fine.” Theo tore open a packet of sunflower seeds and tossed a few toward the bird. “Where’s the gate?”

The magpie let out a loud caw, flew down, and pecked at the seeds.

“See! He spoke,” Pavel said. “So what did he say?”

“He said, ‘Pavel, I’m going to poop on your head if you don’t leave Theo alone,’ ” Theo replied with a straight face.

The magpie flew overhead. Pavel crouched, covering his hair. He laughed as he straightened. “You got me. He didn’t say that.”

Theo sucked on the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. “No. He didn’t say anything. I don’t know why I heard the birds talk earlier. Maybe because I banged my head.”

The magpie flew to the center of the circle and pecked at the ground. Ping, ping, ping.

“That’s where I fell this morning.” Theo grabbed his backpack and quiver and moved closer. He scratched at the moss. “Do you have anything in your Paveltron that’ll blow the grit out of the crevices?”

“Of course.” Pavel removed the metal object from his backpack, slid the numbers around to get the magic-nine-box sequence, and took out a tool that looked like a straw with buttons. “Try this one.”

Theo clicked a button, and a stream of air cleared away the moss. “Hey, Pavel, look.”

He uncovered an engraving of a seven-sided star, the edges boxy like a cog on a gear. Each end aligned with one of the megaliths. A mosaic of colorful stones spiraled like sun rays around the engraving.

“What is it?” Pavel pushed his glasses up his nose and peered at the star.

“It looks exactly like my medallion.” Theo rubbed the center. “You think it’ll fit?”


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