Prologue

1962 – Location Unknown

 

One more minute and Ronnie would be free from the stifling heat of the cavern. Five more minutes after that and she would be back on the boat, sailing home.

Safe. Alive.

But that was not going to happen now. There was a terrible moment when Ronnie thought she might actually pretend that she heard nothing—that she was the only one left alive and could run away to safety. But the cry was unmistakable.

“Ronnie! Help!” It was weaker the second time, with subtle tones of defeat.

Shielding her eyes from the sun, she stole a final glimpse of the island she loved so dearly. Framed perfectly by the cavern mouth, the bay stood, gentle waves lapping on its virgin-white beach. And sweeping back in a huge rocky crescent, the swelling green hills that nurtured the untroubled wildlife tempted her to abandon any remaining hope. In a place of such unspoiled beauty, the horror of the past two hours could almost be considered a lie. But the truth forced her back into the cavern with terrible cruelty. A coiling jet of fire seared the air above. A warning shot.

“I’m coming, Heinrich,” she called.

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if he was hurt, but the answer was obvious. She saw exactly what happened, and it was a miracle he was still alive at all. A roar like the sound of a freight train rushing through a tunnel shook the cave walls, but she carried on. No turning back. She’d rescue Heinrich or die trying. Probably the latter.

The mouth of the larger cavern loomed ahead—a hub area connecting a series of vast underground tunnels and caves, richly embedded with diamond deposits and lush natural architecture. Earlier that day it was a place of popping champagne corks and snapping group photographs. Now all she expected to find when she got back inside were smouldering bones and the stench of death.

Testing not only her balance but her nerves too, she grabbed at the rock face to steady herself, ready to bite back the pain radiating from her torn ankle before running inside. Her skin blistered after she touched the hard surface, and at once she pulled away, feeling a rush of cold adrenaline as her foot took all her weight. She conceded a small yelp, but the pain was bearable, and without pausing for thought, Ronnie half ran, half hobbled toward the hub area.

Great rhythmic thuds crashed somewhere ahead and above her, each one followed by a fiery snort of breath. It was coming.

“Ronnie!” It was more a scream than a cry for help that time.
“Almost there! Don’t move! If you can see it, don’t provoke it!”
“Quickly!”

Ronnie tripped as she entered the area. Cursing at the sudden pain, she glanced back at the cause and saw the jutting handle of a barrow they had brought in earlier. It was full to the brim with diamonds, each one sparkling with fiery brilliance, illuminated by the tiny flames lapping the roof. The roar came again. Flinching, Ronnie glanced around the cavern, desperate to find Heinrich. All she could see were the charred remains of their equipment blasted across the ground. Oscilloscopes and clinometers smashed; notebooks, specimen bags, and tools scattered. And, of course, the bodies.

Then she saw him. A hulk of a man now reduced to a battered wreck, Heinrich sprawled in the blackened dirt next to some storage cases, a red sheen covering one side of his face, one leg twisted underneath him. Something was huddled between his shuddering arms underneath his burnt trench coat.

“Heinrich!” She scrambled across ash and broken glass to reach him, suppressing a shriek when he revealed what hid under his coat. A small boy, streaked with dirt, lay there shivering. He stared directly ahead, the look of shell shock Ronnie had seen so many times as a girl in the war, but then she saw. Two bodies, burned almost beyond recognition, lay against another barrow filled with diamonds.

“There were supposed to be no children on this expedition.” Heinrich sobbed. “He hid himself away to be with . . . to be with . . .”

Ronnie could not look at the bodies for another moment. She fought back a surge of despair as she closed her stinging eyes.

“Get him out of here, Ronnie. Before—”

The dull thud of something heavy impacting the ground interrupted them, and Ronnie, knowing precisely what she would see, turned to look. A fluttering of ash churned around a huge reptilian head, larger than a truck, dark red like congealed blood. Two great eyes, each a river-green vortex of light, shone through the settling cloud.

Ronnie drew in a faltering breath and stifled it, as though some primal instinct told her any movement might be the last she made. As if it sensed her fear, the beast slowly lifted the top half of its jaw to reveal a pink thorny tongue and an explosion of twisted grey fangs. A blast of earthy breath ruffled Ronnie’s hair as another roar blasted out.

Behind Ronnie, Heinrich moaned, but she dared not turn.The jaws clamped shut, and the head, still pressed to the ground, began a fluid zigzag motion toward them. A thick scaly neck trailed behind it, leading upward into one of the connecting caverns ten feet above, and it was then that Ronnie realized just how huge this creature was.Two sizeable forearms dragged a huge body out from the hole, and with a sound not unlike the snapping of a hundred wet branches, an intimidating set of leathery wings unfolded. With its head still flat to the ground, back arched, and wings fully extended, the enormous lizard was a terrifying sight.

“Such a sudden end for so magnificent a venture,” Heinrich said quietly.
From somewhere, Ronnie managed to find the strength to steady her shaking as she said what might be her final words. “Ah, Heinrich, but how many people can say they have lived to see a real dragon?”
“Don’t you mean dragons, Ronnie?”

Ronnie was about to ask what he meant when two more reptilian heads, much smaller than the first, appeared from behind the enormous wings, hissing in defiance.

“Hatchlings,” she gasped. “No wonder it attacked so ferociously.”
“A breeding colony?”
“Exactly.”
“Could we have stumbled upon a more dangerous place?”
“We have only one chance to survive this,” she said, staring at the boy cowering within Heinrich’s coat.
“No!”

“Bring the boy. Now.”


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