dragons breath 01 - stalked by flames, страница 1
Table of Contents
About the Author
By Susan Illene
Stalked by Flames
Copyright © 2015 by Susan Illene
All right reserved.
This book, whole or in part, may not be copied, scanned, or reproduced by electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying or the implementation of any type of storage or retrieval system) without the express written permission of the author, except where permitted by law. Please do not participate or encourage the piracy of copyrighted materials. Purchase only authorized editions.
Images obtained for the creation of this novel’s cover were licensed for use from Teresa Yeh photography and Jeff Brown Graphics. Design by Claudia McKinney at Phat Puppy Art.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events portrayed within its pages are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not meant to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, undead, or mostly dead is purely coincidental.
To my former unit at Fort Bragg. Thanks for teaching me to persevere no matter the obstacles in my way.
I should have known the day was going to be bad when I stepped outside and saw vivid purple and red northern lights in the sky—at nine in the morning, in Oklahoma. Checking my water bottle, I didn’t find anything suspicious in the clear liquid. Then I caught other people staring upward, too, gawking. Thank God. I’d begun to wonder if the hit of acid I’d dropped two years ago had come back to haunt me.
The lights faded and the sky turned dark and ominous shortly after that, which should have been my next clue to stay inside and wait it out. Not to mention it was a Monday and doomed by default. But I didn’t, so I only had myself to blame when the clouds unleashed bucket loads of rain on me while I loaded all my personal possessions into the backseat of my truck.
That wasn’t the end of the troubles, though. Not even close.
Right after turning in the keys to my apartment I discovered my truck had a flat tire on the front. Someone had slashed it, leaving the poor thing to look like an undercooked soufflé. I spent the rest of the morning at the shop getting it replaced.
Then right as I was about to escape Norman city limits, my friend Trish called to remind me I hadn’t turned in my library books yet. It was almost as if fate itself intervened so I couldn’t leave Oklahoma anytime soon, though I suspected she’d wanted to say goodbye one last time.
Another storm approached from the west as I balanced a high stack of books in my arms, heading for Bizzell Library. With the semester over and graduation just two days ago, there weren’t many people lingering on campus. Just a few students lounging on the grass and a guy feeding the squirrels. Most people had gone home for the summer. Much like I hoped to do.
The ground shook and two of my books tumbled to the sidewalk. Damn earthquakes. They were getting more frequent with every passing month, and the experts couldn’t explain them. Oklahoma had a reputation for tornadoes—not earthquakes.
A few dozen other places around the world were experiencing similar problems. Extreme weather, earthquakes, and an unsettling sense of doom that left everyone feeling the end was nigh. Of course, I didn’t buy what those crazy guys on street corners shouted.
I leaned down and grabbed the fallen books and put them back on top of the others before resuming my walk toward the library. Now that the tremor had passed there wouldn’t be another one for at least thirty minutes. At least, that’s how it usually went. None were on the scale of the big California earthquakes, but they were strong enough that you felt them when they struck. The constant shaking was beginning to take its toll on structures. I kept waiting for a building to come crumbling down.
A student exiting the library held the doors open when I reached them. I mumbled my thanks to the guy and kept going. Five minutes, tops, and I’d be out of there by noon. Texas wasn’t having all these problems. I couldn’t wait to get home to my parents’ working ranch where I could put my shiny new business degree to use. The paperwork alone had become a mess since I’d left, and I had a lot of plans to help increase profits.
Trish, my best friend, stood behind the checkout counter. We’d been roommates during our freshman year. I’d never been good with people except those closest to me, but she’d poked and prodded until I let her into my inner circle. If not for her forcing me out of my reclusiveness, my college experience might have been limited to classes and my dorm room. I still didn’t like interacting with people much, but she’d helped me improve my social skills a lot.
Trish had graduated on Saturday too, but she planned to stay on for her master’s program. Her boyfriend, Justin, was chatting with her. I wasn’t surprised to see him there.
If you looked at them, you wouldn’t think they were a good match. She had wild curly red hair, pale skin, and a curvy figure. He had brown hair in a military cut, tanned skin from a lot of time spent outdoors, and a toned physique. Trish wore bright, colorful clothing to match her personality; Justin stuck with earth tones. He never joked and took everything seriously. Even their interests weren’t the same. From the time they’d started dating two years ago until now I’d never understood how they stayed together.
Neither of them noticed me walking up. Not even when I cleared my throat.
“I’m telling you, it’s fracking causing the earthquakes,” Justin said, his tone serious.
She rolled her eyes. “Maybe we should frack later and really shake things up.”
“You’re just trying to change the subject.” He let out a sigh of exasperation. “The way they’re drilling these days—it’s important we do something about it.”
Justin was an environmental science major who really got into his studies. Before college, he’d served in the army for six years in the infantry and had done two tours overseas. Now he was enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program with only one year left to go. The guy was all about serving his country in whatever way he could. Now he thought he could do more as an officer.
It made him an interesting choice for Trish, considering she took life a lot less seriously than he did, unless you counted books. Whether they were fiction or non-fiction she practically lived in them. Probably
I dropped my stack of books on the counter in front of her. “Am I interrupting something?”
“Oh, look what the earthquake shook up,” she said, giving me a once-over. “Bailey, you look like crap.”
I tucked a stray strand of my black hair behind my ear. Whenever it rained, it fell limp and lifeless. Cutting it to shoulder-length for the summer hadn’t given it any of the body the stylist had promised. I suspected my make-up was ruined, too. It was definitely one of those days.
“There’s another storm approaching,” I explained.
Trish sighed. “Great. It’ll probably strike the moment I head home.”
“Not to worry. I brought an umbrella,” Justin reassured her, patting his backpack.
He was always prepared for anything.
“So you’re really out of here?” Trish asked, drawing my attention back to her.
“The truck is packed and the tank is full.” I’d even loaded up on water and snacks so I wouldn’t have to stop before the state border.
She scanned the books into the system. “Make sure you call me when you get home.”
It would only take a little over four hours to drive to my stepfather’s ranch southwest of Dallas. I’d arrive well before dark and maybe even in time for one of my mother’s home-cooked meals. After eating like a bum since Christmas break, I was ready for some real food.
A rumble of thunder sounded above our heads.
“Yeah, I will,” I said, glaring up at the ceiling.
Trish came around the counter and gave me a hug. I had to admit I was going to miss her and all the fun we’d had together in the last four years. We planned to meet again at the end of the summer, but that seemed a long time away. Too bad she couldn’t come live on the ranch with me. I could use a buffer against my brothers.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait until the storm passes?” she asked, pulling away.
“It’s not raining yet and the radar showed it clear to the south. I’ll be fine.”
The ground jerked beneath our feet. Our eyes widened, and we grabbed each other for balance. Then it started shaking faster, sending us tumbling down. Screams rose up around us and books spilled from nearby shelves, crashing to the floor. Was this it? Was this the earthquake that would finally do us in? Maybe those folks preaching on street corners had been right after all.
Trish and I huddled against the counter as more than a minute went by with no sign of it letting up. Justin kneeled next to us muttering about fracking, but unlike his usual bravado he looked worried this time. We’d had some earthquakes recently, but nothing bad enough to send my heart racing into overdrive. It had to be at least a 6.0 on the Richter scale. Maybe higher.
About the time I thought the roof would surely come down on top of us, the shaking stopped. A moment later a loud roar came from somewhere outside. I’d never heard anything like it, but the angry sound sent chills down my spine. What the hell was wrong with this place? It had been fairly normal when I’d first arrived on campus. Now a day couldn’t go by without something weird happening.
I stood, dusting myself off. The ceiling had cracked and bits of plaster had spilled down, but the library didn’t appear too bad. After all that shaking it could have been a lot worse.
“I’ve got to go,” I said.
A few other students had the same idea and were already heading for the doors.
Trish gripped the counter as she rose up. “Are you sure this is a good time to leave?”
“Uh, yeah. This place is falling apart. You should go, too.”
She shook her head. “The library was built to last. It’ll be fine.”
Trish was the one who worked here. I had to hope she was right. A part of me wanted to grab her and force her to leave with me. With everything that kept happening, it couldn’t be safe to stay here. She was stubborn, though. I could see it in the tilt of her chin that she wouldn’t go anywhere. Crazy woman.
“Just be careful,” I warned. “The next earthquake could be bigger.”
“I will,” she promised.
We hugged one last time and I hurried toward the doors. Outside a cool blast of wind hit my face and more thunder rumbled to the west. A handful of people were grouped together in front of the clock tower. I was in such a hurry to get to my truck I didn’t think anything of it until one of them pointed at the sky.
“Holy shit, is that for real?” a guy asked.
I swung my head in the direction of the football stadium and nearly stumbled.
“Are those…” I couldn’t bring myself to finish.
“Dragons,” a young woman next to me breathed out.
Her words were followed by the snapping of pictures from people’s cell phones. I blinked, unable to believe it. Bright flashes of light lit the sky and more of them appeared. They were fearsome green creatures with wingspans that could rival a small jet. I counted at least ten of them, flying in every direction.
Several of us moved closer to the bike racks to get a better view as one swooped low, heading for Owen Field. There wouldn’t be any football games today, but the university bookstore was in the stadium. Students starting summer classes today would likely be going by there.
One of the dragons paused midair and flapped his leathery wings as he stared at something below. His jaws opened wide and he let out a stream of fire aimed toward the ground. Another school building blocked our view of what he targeted, but terrified screams erupted from that direction. They cut off abruptly a moment later.
My stomach twisted. Had he just killed them? Had I stood there and watched as helpless people burned to death? None of this should have been real—dragons didn’t exist! I felt a measure of relief when a group of people came running from that direction. Maybe most of them had escaped the flames.
“Look. Another one is coming this way!” someone yelled.
I jerked my head to the right. Just beyond Nielson Hall another green dragon flew straight toward us. His massive hind legs stretched out and his claws caught on the roof’s edge, wrenching it apart. Bricks and mortar crashed to the ground. The dragon was less than two hundred feet away and coming toward us fast.
“Get out of here,” I screamed.
By this time there were about a dozen of us who’d gathered by the bike racks. People ran in every direction. I pivoted on my heels and almost tripped over a young woman sprawled on the ground. Tears streaked down her face as she struggled to get up. There was no way I could leave her like that.
I leaned down and grabbed her arm. The dragon swooped right over us, letting out a stream of fire that struck several guys farther down the sidewalk. The girl made choking noises as we watched the men’s bodies disappear in the flames. I covered my mouth to keep from gagging as well. By the time the dragon moved on, there was nothing left but piles of ash. Even the pavement had been scorched partway through.
“Oh, dear Jesus. Save us all.” I turned to find a woman who appeared to be in her fifties standing there. She clutched her purse close to her chest and had an expression of horror on her face.
I could totally relate. She looked a lot like I felt.
The younger girl whose hand I still held gripped me harder. “He’s coming back!”
I swung my gaze around to find the dragon circling for another go at us. Good grief, did these things not give up? What the hell had we ever done to them? They acted like rabid beasts who’d escaped an animal sanctuary—except even bigger and more deadly.
Taking hold of both women, I pulled them with me through the maze of sidewalks that made up the campus grounds. The library entrance wasn’t far, but I didn’t think that was a good idea. The dragon knocked pieces of one building down with only its claws and its fire could burn through cement. Who knew what it would do if it saw us going in there? Trish was inside. I couldn’t bring the danger to her if I could help it.
I headed around the library to where the path narrowed between buildings. It
“Go!” I urged. “I’ll catch up.”
The older woman’s eyes met mine. She knew what I was doing—it was written all over her face—but there was also the understanding that one of us had to make the sacrifice. With misty-eyed gratitude, she took the girl’s hand and pulled her along.
I spun around. The dragon still focused on them and hadn’t altered his flight path. I had to do something to catch his attention. A quick plan formed in my mind.