Astrid's door creaked open slowly, revealing one of her eyes. She looked at me for a second before swinging the door open. Her face was ashen and her eyes were red, probably from not sleeping the entire night. She had an anxious look on her face, which told me her day was only going to get worse.
"H-Hiccup, have you seen Stormfly?" Her voice was hoarse from worry.
I froze on the spot, even though I had rehearsed it a thousand times on my way over here. There is nothing you can do to "get better" at telling someone about the death of a friend. If anything, each time makes it worse.
"Astrid, I-I'm sorry," I mumbled. "If there was something I could have done to help her, I would've done it."
"What do you mean?"
"A…uh, a…lightning…," I choked out, unable to finish my thought.
Her hand covered her mouth as her eyes went wide. "Is she still alive?"
I looked down, but didn't say anything because she got the message quickly enough. My eyes were beginning to water because I felt so bad about what Astrid was going through. It was the same kind of bleak, hopeless feeling I had when my dad and his crew ripped Toothless away from me that day in the arena. When I was in the middle of my "rite of passage."
"Wh-where is she?" Astrid said.
I took a deep breath. Glanced behind myself, toward home. There was a barely recognizable shape near my house. I pointed at it and said, "Over there."
Astrid stepped out of her house and quietly closed her door. Started walking without even letting me know she was going. I followed behind her as she closed the distance between us and Stormfly. We were about halfway up the hill leading to her dragon when Astrid picked up the pace a little. And suddenly, she stopped. We weren't five feet away from Stormfly, who was in that same position, head and neck twisted nearly halfway around, blood slowly pooling in front of her feet. And her feet were still blown open. I just couldn't get over the fact that being struck by lightning in the head could do so much damage all over.
"It's not Stormfly," Astrid said after a pause. She sounded absolutely sure of herself.
I did a double take. Of course this was Stormfly in front of us. Was she in denial because she didn't want to have to accept that her dragon was dead? Or was she right, and somehow her dragon was still alive?
"What?" I asked after a few seconds.
"This isn't Stormfly," she repeated.
"Are…are you sure about this?"
"Positive," she said. "Stormfly doesn't have a band of yellow running down her side."
I looked closer, trying to see what she was seeing. And sure enough, there was a narrow yellow stripe between the dragon's blue top and white bottom. I blinked, making sure I wasn't seeing things. But that stripe never disappeared.
I sighed, trying to show I was relieved, but if anything, I felt a little worse. Sure, there was a chance Stormfly was still alive, and I was going to help Astrid find her. But I felt bad because this Deadly Nadder was one of the dragons living in Berk. One of our dragons, even if it didn't belong to anyone.
"Do, uh…do you know where Stormfly might be?" I asked slowly.
"Maybe," she said. "But I think I'm gonna need help." I looked at her blankly, still reeling from having to examine the Nadder who was slaughtered by Thor last night. Astrid turned toward me and asked, "Do you mind if I join you and Toothless for a morning flight?" There was no change in her expression. It was nothing romantic, just the I'm-on-a-mission tone of voice.
"Well, I don't see why not," I replied, trying to sound at least somewhat animated. But I just couldn't do it. Maybe Toothless could help in changing that. "Be right back," I said. I turned toward home to fetch my dragon. Hoped we could find Stormfly within the near future.
I opened the door to find Gobber, my dad and Thornado still asleep. Toothless was curled up in the middle of the floor, about ten feet away from the hearth. He blearily opened his eyes and looked in my direction as I walked in and shut the door. He yawned. Stretched. And stood up. Padded over to me and murmured softly, rubbing against my side. "Hey, bud. How ya feeling?" I asked quietly. He looked at me with his deep, yellow-green eyes.
Being around dragons was almost magical. Being around Toothless, even more so. No matter how bad a day I was having, he could always make it better. I thought it was nearly impossible to be in a surly mood around him.
I silently opened the door to keep the other occupants of the house from waking. Toothless walked outside and waited. I followed, closing the door behind me.
I held his gaze for a little bit, trying not to tip him off about what I was thinking. Toothless kept staring at me, waiting for something to happen. "Let's go flying," I said quietly. Toothless jumped forward, nearly crushing me against the door, his body wriggling with excitement. He knew exactly what was coming. A victory lap around the island, followed by breakfast.
"Okay. Okay, yes, you're excited. I can tell," I said to him. I gently pushed him backwards so I could get some space between me and him, which was much harder than it sounded. In retrospect, I should have stood on the other side of him, then told him we were flying. Oh, well. There was always next time.
Toothless bounded away from me, getting into open air as I followed. I smiled a little watched him for a moment, knowing we went through this routine every morning. And it never got old. As I moved away from the house, I looked down to make sure I knew where the ground was. And stepped.
I heard a frightened squawk come from Toothless as he skidded to a halt near Astrid and the Nadder Thor had killed last night. "Oh, man," I mumbled under my breath. I walked toward where Toothless and Astrid were standing. Toothless was frozen in place, staring at the Nadder. He was locked into full concentration, but wasn't moving. It was as if he could gather every bit of information he needed ten feet away from the dragon.
I knew walking up behind him was a recipe for a fireball, so I took a roundabout path to get to him. I made sure I was in his field of vision before I approached. As soon as I saw his eyes, I whispered, "Hey, Toothless. How 'bout a morning flight?" No response.
"What is he getting at?" Astrid asked.
"I have no idea," I told her. I slowly crept toward Toothless, trying to keep from startling him. I got maybe five feet away from him when he grunted and blinked. He switched his gaze from the Nadder to me. I took advantage and stepped between him and the other dragon. Closed the distance between us and stroked the top of his head. Toothless closed his eyes and murmured in comfort, knowing I was still here for him.
"Is he okay?" Astrid said from behind me.
"Yeah, come on," I said.
Before Astrid could move, a raspy, condescending voice startled the three of us. It was Mildew. "Astrid, I am so sorry about your dragon. It's just awful that Thor had to do this. And, you know, I was starting to like your dragon a little bit. Really, if there is anything I can do for you, please tell me." Toothless growled because he liked Mildew about as much as he liked eels.
I closed my eyes in annoyance and was ready to retaliate when I realized it was going to be hopeless. Mildew was the kind of person who was never going to budge, even if he knew he was hysterically wrong.
Not now. Don't do it, I thought. I hoped Astrid was good at reading my mind, because Mildew was ready to immerse himself in sadistic pleasure if she opened her mouth.
But before she could say anything, an idea hit me, so I took the opening. "That was very timely of you, Mildew," I said matter-of-factly, turning toward him. Let the moment hang, waiting for him to stumble. I was trying to let him know I was onto something. The way he was talking to Astrid just didn't sound natural enough to be coincidental timing.
"You don't have to mind me, I'm just going to the great hall for breakfast," he said with a sideways glance in my direction. He continued walking, Fungus beside him. I stood there in confusion because of his expression. Mildew wasn't the kind of person who was anywhere near gifted at giving his condolences about something. But his face looked like he was trying to hide a smirk from me. And that meant one of two things: either he was thrilled another dragon was dead, or he really was hiding something. Like Stormfly, maybe?
I waited for him to get out of earshot and said to Astrid, "Was it just me, or was he being a little too obvious about that?"
"It sounded like he practiced it. D'you think he's hiding something?" she said. Just like I had hoped a few seconds ago, Astrid read my mind perfectly. Besides, if Stormfly weren't at his house, it wasn't like we were going to waste a lot of time there. "I say we check, just in case."
"Sounds good to me," I replied. Hopped onto Toothless’ back and helped Astrid up behind me.
Toothless spread his wings and jumped, getting air underneath us. "Mildew's first, then survey the island?" I asked.
"Let's go. He's never gonna be able to catch up with us."
"All right, bud," I said to Toothless. "Mildew's house first."
He took off, letting me control where he went. Toothless was familiar with the way I told him where to go. He knew that tone of voice meant to let me control our flight. I worked my peg until we had turned in a half-circle, facing directly toward Mildew's house. It wasn't hard to spot, mainly because it was completely by itself. Away from town. Where nobody had to worry about him.
Toothless flew in a straight line toward Mildew's house and prepared to land in the middle of his cabbage garden.
"Not here, bud," I said, pulling gently upward on his saddle. Toothless grunted and hovered for a little bit, the wash from his wings pushing against his cabbage plants. I directed him forward until we were somewhat behind the house. I didn't want to give Mildew any reason to get even angrier with me. Dragon tracks in his cabbage garden would have definitely done it. Especially after a hard rain.
I jumped off Toothless’ back and helped Astrid off. "Stay here, okay?" I said, making eye contact with my dragon. He sat back on his haunches, waiting for me to give him the signal.
"He listens well," Astrid observed.
"Thanks," I said. I wasn't going any farther than thanking Astrid. Not when she was looking for her dragon.
I walked casually toward Mildew's front door, noting with dismay that my tracks were going to be my undoing if he went to my dad about this. Pulled on the door. It rattled, but never opened. Pushed. More rattling, no opening. Most houses on Berk had a front and back entrance. There was a reason for it too. Say, if an Outcast raid happened, we had two different ways to escape from our houses. Mildew, on the other hand, only had one way in and one way out of his house. Not a good plan, especially if the only way in or out was blocked.
"It's locked," I said, looking around the corner at Astrid. "Can you see in through the windows?" Every house on Berk (including Mildew's) had open windows that could be covered with heavy sheets of leather.
"Uh-uh. Too tall," Astrid replied.
"How far do you need to go?"
"A foot, maybe?"
I walked back to Toothless and got his attention. Directed him over to Astrid. "Right here, buddy," I told him. He crouched letting Astrid get on his back. She never sat down on his saddle, which he noticed. Toothless grunted in curiosity. I knew he was about to move, so I stepped closer, holding eye contact with him. I kept it neutral, letting Toothless know he needed to stay still. "Anything?" I asked Astrid.
She grabbed onto the ledge to steady her balance and peered in. For a moment, I was thankful Mildew wasn't smart enough to cover his windows. "I don't think so," she said.
"His house is essentially one giant room. If you don't see Stormfly quickly, she's probably not here."
"Stormfly? Come on, girl," Astrid said into the house. I waited silently, making sure to keep Toothless from moving. Astrid stayed where she was for a beat, then slowly sat down on Toothless’ back. "Nothing," she said with a deep breath.
I waited for her to suggest a location, but she continued looking down. Toothless crouched slightly, giving Astrid the option of getting off his back. But she stayed there. "Do you have any idea where she might be?" I asked her.
Astrid shrugged. "The cove? Either that or the forest on the other side of the island."
The cove was the last place I thought Stormfly might be. Thunder would echo around inside those walls for eternity, especially if a lightning bolt came close enough. Stormfly would have been scared right out of the cove if she had visited there last night. But to humor Astrid, I said, "Okay, let's see what we find." I jumped onto Toothless’ back in front of Astrid and hooked in with my peg. We took off. Toothless was still letting me decide our course, so I turned us around again, heading for the cove. I just hoped he'd let me take him there. Toothless knew the cove wasn't a good place for him. That was his prison when I had first shot him down. I took him there for punishment when I had Torch waddling around Berk.
Predictably, once the cove was within sight, Toothless grunted and tried to adjust his flight so that we didn't go there.
"What's gotten into him?" Astrid asked.
"I'll tell you later," I said. Turned my attention toward Toothless. "It's okay, bud. We're gonna stay with you."
I fought him the entire way to the ground. Toothless landed in a heap, panting. "It's okay," I said again. Dismounted and helped Astrid off his back. I kept my left hand on Toothless’ neck, telling him I wasn't going to abandon him again. I turned my attention to Astrid and said, "You're on your own here."
She looked at me quizzically. Before she said anything, I continued. "Toothless will throw a fit if I leave him alone." She nodded in understanding, knowing this was the place she first met Toothless. And started walking.
From my vantage point, the cove looked completely normal, except for a higher water level in the stream and lake. I knew rainfall tended to collect here, simply because the cove was at a lower elevation than the surrounding area. I glanced around, keeping my hand on Toothless. I felt his tension from just being here, so I hoped Astrid would hurry.
A quick shimmer from one of the low-hanging bushes caught my attention. It was maybe twenty feet to Astrid's left.
"Astrid!" I called. She turned to me. "That bush to your left might have something behind it." I pointed with my right hand. She turned just as it shimmered again, catching her attention. I watched as she slowly crept toward the bush. She was about five feet away when it exploded. Astrid yelped in surprise as three Terrible Terrors jumped out of the bush and flew away. You could always count on those little monsters to be somewhere inconvenient.
"That wasn't funny," she said from across the way.
"I had no idea," I replied, trying to hide my grin.
Astrid continued her search for a short while, then returned to me and Toothless.
"Nothing," she said.
"Would Stormfly know of any caves on the island?" I asked. The idea of a cave made sense to me. If the entrance was sloped correctly, water wouldn't collect inside a cave. Get deep enough, and thunder doesn't sound so loud anymore. There was only one problem with this. We had about twenty different caves and tunnels on Berk.
Astrid shrugged. "Probably. We've been to several of them for your training exercises."
"We'll find her," I said, trying to sound reassuring. "C'mon, let's go." Astrid jumped onto Toothless back behind me and we were airborne again. I'd have been willing to bet Toothless was ecstatic about leaving the cove for now.
"Let's start with places we've been for training," I suggested. I figured I had a fifty percent chance of looking like a genius. Maybe Stormfly would have gone somewhere familiar. Then again, if she was panicking, her choice would have been more random.
I knew of three openings on the far side of the mountain we had visited for training. One of them was a small entrance with no tunnel. Most likely, Stormfly wouldn't have taken shelter there for the night, but it never hurt to check.
That cave was the first one we approached. One glance told me there wasn't anything of interest there. Toothless landed and ran to the next opening. He put his nose to the ground and started sniffing, hopefully searching for a trace of Stormfly.
I felt Astrid begin to slide off the saddle. "Hang on, Toothless might be onto something," I said. Toothless grunted and followed a scent trail, much like a dog would do. It took him past two openings in the mountain, all the way to the tapered end of the ledge we were on. He looked up and gave a short roar. The kind of roar that told me he had found something of interest.
"Hang on," I said to Astrid. I hooked back into the stirrup. Toothless took off, headed upwards. He landed at the entrance of a cave I'd have bet nobody knew about. It was completely inaccessible, unless you had a dragon with you.
Toothless galloped into the cave with a grunt. A high-pitched, staccato warble responded, which startled Astrid.
"That sounds like Stormfly!" She immediately jumped off the saddle and ran forward. And stopped after about three steps. For the record, I had no idea how she could distinguish Stormfly's call from any other Nadder. They all sounded the same to me. But we had a new problem. The Nadder who had warbled from the darkness wasn't coming out. And Astrid couldn't see six inches past her face.
"Stormfly?" she asked. Another warble. "C'mon, girl. It's gonna be fine," she coaxed. Another warble, followed by what sounded like hard leather brushing against rock.
Astrid took another step forward and stumbled slightly with a gasp. "Oh, no," she said.
"What is it?" I asked.
"The ground is nothing but sharp rocks. One of them just went through my boot."
Not good. Stormfly wasn't gonna move because of the ground. Astrid just had one of those stalagmites go through her boot, although her tone sounded like it hadn't pierced her foot. "Are you okay?" I asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. It didn't go through my foot." She paused for a beat then asked, "Can Toothless shoot anything other than fireballs?"
"Yeah, but I haven't taught him any commands for it."
Astrid sighed in irritation and backpedaled slightly. "All right. I know Stormfly is to the left. Have Toothless shoot a fireball in that direction." She pointed slightly to our right.
"Toothless, plasma blast," I said, pointing in that general direction. With a high-pitched grunt, Toothless shot a fireball that didn't travel more than ten feet before it collided with the wall. A hollow, echoing explosion filled the air for a second or so. Stormfly gave another warble.
The fireball gave us enough light for about a second to see what we were up against. Stormfly was about ten feet to the left of where the fireball had exploded. Maybe fifteen feet away from us in total. The ground was nothing but thin, razor-sharp rock fragments. Perhaps we could clear them out of the way?
"Can I try something crazy?" I asked.
"For you, that's normal," Astrid pointed out. I wasn't going to argue, mainly because she was right.
"Here, take this. See if you can cut out a path on the ground." I took my peg off and touched her shoulder with it.
"What…Hiccup are you serious!?"
"Just try it. But be careful, because I can still feel pain through that." I hopped toward Toothless and leaned against his side for support.
Astrid turned to face me and said, "Liar." She grabbed the peg out of my hand and brought it down. The ground beneath the foot shattered, leaving fragments of thin rock behind.
"Well, that kinda worked," I said. "How're ya gonna get the fragments out of the way?"
"Dunno," she said tersely. And continued hammering. More rocks fragmented, more shards to move out of the way.
After several more strikes, Astrid paused and said, "Stormfly? Talk to me, girl." Stormfly gave a quiet warble. Astrid turned to her left and continued hammering her way toward her dragon.
"Can you get to her?" I called into the cave. My voice echoed slightly as I heard Astrid progressing toward her dragon.
"Uh, yeah, but Stormfly's in big trouble," she replied.
"What's going on?"
"She can't walk." Astrid sounded worried again. I knew this was really bad. Stormfly's only means of locomotion on the ground was walking.
"Do I need to get someone else?" I asked.
"I don't think we have another choice. I'll stay here with Stormfly while you go find someone."
"Yeah, about that, I think I'll need my leg back," I pointed out.
"Oh." Astrid shuffled through the broken rocks, kicking them slightly out of the way as she returned my peg. I strapped it on.
"We'll need a signal when we get back." She nodded. I climbed onto Toothless’ back and clicked into the stirrup. Toothless turned around and jumped, getting air underneath us once more.