Chapter 1: A Boy with Wings
The beckoning call of the Samodiva stilled his feet.
Theoooo. Again, the hostile woodland nymph summoned him, his name floating toward him like a whisper on the wind.
He shivered in the early-morning breeze as a flash of white flitted around the towering pines. Sunlight filtering through the canopy of branches cast red streaks across the nymph’s garment. She disappeared in a blur, dissolving like mist. His lips trembled. Where had she gone?
The gusts died down and the forest became eerily quiet as if the predator lurked nearby. Until this moment, he had thought stories about Samodivi were fairytales, 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!” Dropping a pair of mechanical wings he carried, Theo gripped his friend Pavel’s wrist and crouched 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!” Why had he let Pavel convince him to come to the Stone Forest? 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 near 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, they said, the nymph stole the man’s last breath.
Theo, where are you? The nymph called him again.
“Did you hear—” Theo 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, he 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 from his pants as he stood. “See? Nothing to worry about. Probably just a white rabbit. Have you been reading Alice in Wonderland? Gonna see the Cheshire cat grinning next?”
Theo exhaled. “No. 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 shook his head at Theo’s twin sister. “Why are you following us?”
She opened her eyes wide, and her voice quivered. “I ...”
Theo’s sister did act like a princess at times, expecting people to obey her commands, but right now, seeing her fear, he wanted to protect her. “You shouldn’t be here, Nia. Look at you! This isn’t a place to wear flip-flops. Your feet and legs are scratched from all the blackberries 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.”
“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 earlier this morning.”
Pavel looked over the rim of his glasses. “Well, go back and make a wreath from your herbs with all the other dumb, giggling girls.”
“It’s not dumb. It’s tradition, something your family doesn’t understand,” Nia spat back.
Today’s celebration was a long-held ritual to protect girls from dragons. The women claimed the plants held healing and protective powers when picked at dawn on June 24. They twisted the miracle herbs into a giant, gate-like wreath the older girls stepped through. Theo had no clue how that was supposed to prevent dragons like Zmey and his sister, Lamia, from carrying them off, but villagers had performed the ceremony for centuries. He grinned at the silly notion. Maybe it did work because so far, a dragon hadn’t kidnapped anyone he knew.
“You’ve been talking about the Midsummer’s Day Fair for years,” Theo said. “Now that you’re twelve and can participate, you don’t want to go?”
“Mom insisted I wear Grandma’s mothball-smelling dress.” Her 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 had to be bluffing. She’d already said she was hiding from Mom. He opened his mouth 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.” Nia stomped off around the hill.
Pavel moaned. “Man, I’m glad I only have a brother. 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 his sister’s voice. She paced in front of a tangled web of ivy. A diamond-shaped rock lay at its base. Round holes like sockets had been hewn into the stone, with a trough circling them. 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 cleared away roots.
A fluttering of wings broke the silence. Theo ducked and Nia screamed as a black 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 took a step back. “I wonder if this is a portal to Dragon Village? I’ve heard people saying one was somewhere around here.”
“There’s nothing lost about it.” Pavel smirked. “It’s a make-believe place where mythological creatures live.”
“The only way to find out is to head up it,” Theo said, but hesitated.
“Let’s do it then.” Pavel tore off more of the overgrown ivy from the archway and poked his head inside. “Hey! I think you guys are right.” He 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. “It’s empty. It is kinda narrow, though. 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.” Theo stepped into the dark passage behind his sister.
Nia took small steps, silent as a shadow. Theo wheezed from the steep climb and the thickness of the musty air. Was this how a dungeon smelled?
Near the top of the stairwell, salty gusts replaced the dankness. Theo drew in a refreshing breath as he stepped out of the tunnel. 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, and he sucked in a breath.
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 supposedly protected the village. Its 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.
Why had the old people never mentioned this statue when weaving their tales about dragons?
Theo tore his gaze from the magnificent creature. Looking at Nia, he 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. Take me home.”
“Go home by yourself, Princess,” Pavel said. “You shouldn’t have followed us if you didn’t want to be here.”
Theo left the two to fight and took a step closer to the statue. His mouth gaped in awe. The dragon’s wings, stretched out like a bat’s, took his breath away and made his hands tremble. So large and powerful. “Pavel,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper, “I have to have dragon wings.”
“Let’s see how the new ones I made work first.” Pavel removed his glasses, blew on the lenses, and wiped away the fog. “I wonder how that statue got here.”
Theo 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 land like ancient Thracian gods. 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 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?”
Theo snapped the braces over his arms and held them out straight. White feathers tickled his face. After Pavel tightened the screws in back, Theo climbed 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 still 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?”
“The science room at school. I had to substitute materials, but I know it’ll work.”
Would they work? Now he 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 interrupted. “None of Pavel’s other designs have worked. All they do is make you look like a stork.”
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 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, and the villagers kept silent, too, as if mentioning the dead was taboo. It would help him 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. With a sigh, Theo 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 took a deep breath and 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 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 and resumed flapping his wings.
“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 on 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 yesterday.”
“Yesterday, I jumped from a car roof.” 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 pocket 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 pocket. “Let’s see. Which Paveltron tool will work best?”
“Palvetron? A new invention?” Theo held out his hand. “Let me see.”
Nia edged closer, snatching the device from Pavel. She pressed the plastic numbers on its numeric keypad. “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 that opens 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 bottom until he arranged them in the correct order. Then he pressed a plus sign to the right of the empty square, 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 the 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 a minus key to the left of the empty square. 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 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 stature. The cold 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?
The wind picked up and dark clouds gathered.
“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 closer to Theo.
Thunder rolled closer, rattling the statue. Lightning streaked across the sky. Theo flinched, almost believing Lamia and Zmey were battling amidst 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 fountain. 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 to 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 lighting.” 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 toward 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, and chunks of hail, twisted by the wind, pelted them.
“Run for cover!” Theo shouted as he dragged Nia under the statue’s wing.
A deluge of rain gushed down the dragon, 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 the 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.
“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.
She clawed at his sleeve as something ripped her away. “Let me go!”
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 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 face cooling in a slimy puddle. Next to him, water trickled from the tips of the statue’s wing, droplets splashing his body. He grasped the edge to pull himself up, but quickly yanked away his hand 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, groaning when his cheek stung. Blood trickled down his hand from a gash in his forearm, and a metallic taste burned his mouth.
Pavel 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 one from his back pocket. 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?”
Her purse lay on the ground, the tip of her now-silent phone sticking out. He bent to pull it out to see who had called, but something gold beside the purse blazed as bright as a flame. Theo picked up the object. He shivered from the object’s intense cold. Rough-textured like stone, it filled his palm. Lines crisscrossed one side, while the other was smooth. He turned 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. You know, I bet global warming caused the storm, and it melted her, too.” Pavel grinned as he swiped his phone off. “My brother’s said he’s coming for us, so she better hurry back. He hates waiting.”
“She didn’t leave. Someone took her.”
“What? No way.” Pavel shook his head. “No one else was here. She probably ran home.”
“Look.” He unclasped his hand and held out the golden object. “This wasn’t here before.”
“Probably just a piece of a broken vase. Or ...” He 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 took a deep breath and 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.”
“Who would want to take Nia?”
“I-I think Zmey did.”
“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? The dragon spoke again!” Tears ran down Theo’s face as he pounded the statue’s immobile wing. “Where’s my sister?”
Pavel shook his head as the creature remained silent, its gaze lifeless.
“Where is she?” Theo shouted.
A hand clasped his 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 shuffled down the hill toward the village. Ahead of him, Pavel and his brother gestured to each other, probably arguing. Theo’s stomach churned. Why had he let his sister stay when he and Pavel didn’t know what to expect? 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 sucked in a quick breath 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 words stuck in his throat. His friend was too far ahead of him, disappearing around a bend in the path.
She 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 as 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 abducted Nia, and not the dragon? And now was after him? His heart felt like it would explode from his chest.
“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 pant legs. “H-how do you know that? Did you take her?”
“Come with me, and I’ll show you.” She shuffled past him, disappearing down a path into the forest.
Show him what? Nia? He felt like Hansel, but without Gretel. Should he follow the witch? He wouldn’t know if she had Nia unless he followed her. If she didn’t have his sister, then ... a dragon really could have kidnapped her. He 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.