Burn

For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!

This Week’s Inspiration: Ancient Gold Dragon

Unearthed by a rogue missile strike and discovered by a crew of marines performing roadwork, a strange vessel comes with an ominous warning. When the vessel hatches, it unleashes an ancient war machine the likes of which the modern world has never seen.

Somehow, and I mean absolutely legitimately, I failed to realise just how long this story actually is! I did not think it was longer than the previously longest piece I’ve put out this year but it’s literally 2000 words longer. So as I try to do with some of my longer stories, if you would like to download a MOBI version to take away and read on your own device, please feel free to click this link!

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Repairing potholes in an active warzone, there was one hard and fast rule; there was always a bomb in the hole. Every single time. Road repair might not have the glamour of special forces work, and if you told folk back home what you were doing they probably wouldn’t grasp the obvious dangers. But insurgents in Iram wanted to claim American scalps any way they could. IEDs buried in the rubble of a recent crater or setting an ambush where they knew marines and contractors would be slowed down or working were methods as good as any other. Those same IEDs, left camouflaged by potholes or rubble, could just as easily take out a patrol or a supply truck. And ‘potholes’ could mean a crater from a missile or IED that completely cut the road in half, as was the case with today’s task. Combined with the state of Iram’s infrastructure after years of war, decades of disrepair, and the kind of graft common to Middle Eastern bureaucracies, the roads were never in good condition to begin with. So the road repair crews were always busy, and always in danger.

First Lieutenant Michael Whesker hung back as one of the bomb techs waddled forward in an armoured Teletubby suit to do his ‘Hurt Locker’ thing. The crater was ten foot across and almost waist deep at its lowest point, running right through the centre of the highway. The edges of the crater were jagged but there wasn’t a lot of rubble. Some brown houses squatted in the distance but no structures close enough for a potential ambush. Tan Humvees, an APC, and a couple of armoured utility trucks lined the highway.

The tech tested the edges of the hole, watching for any soft asphalt, and waved a metal detector over the ruin. Those guys were insane, Whesker reflected. It wasn’t even the threat of confronting an IED and winding up splattered across half the landscape like a Jackson Pollock that worried him. Whesker felt no safer in the shadow of the APC than he would have felt in the bomb tech’s position. His body anticipated a bomb to go off, a bullet to strike, something to turn the whole situation upside down, at any second anyway. It was those huge goddamn moon suits they wore to protect themselves, in theory, from an explosion. The heat of the desert was a living thing, trying to get inside you every second of the day. Trying to sap you of your precious bodily fluids. Whesker drank two litres of water before sunup and that would be sweated out before midmorning, it was that kind of heat. Tottering around enclosed in all that weight, those layers of Kevlar and foam and plastic, was unimaginable.

The tech straightened and held his right arm out straight from his body, palm down. Indicating to the surprise of no one that he’d found something. They hurried away from the crater at a dignified waddle.

“Hole is hot!” The sergeant under Whesker’s command, Gallagher, bellowed as a warning.

Iramian drivers backed up behind the column of marines. Civilians, although it was always hard to tell. Angry horns barked from time to time.

Bomb techs sent one of their disposal robots whizzing forward holding a brick of high explosive. Its mechanical arm extended into the pit, dropping the charge, and then Johnny Five hauled ass back to safety. Whesker and his marines huddled behind their armour as the bomb techs yelled a warning. The reducing charge let out a sharp crack, like a gunshot. A split-second later, overlapping the echo of the crack, was a louder, deeper, more sustained boom as the IED in the pit exploded. The shockwave rippled through the asphalt and a plume of dirt and rock erupted from the hole. There was a pregnant pause of several seconds and then shrapnel rained across the surrounding desert. Bent screws and nails and little bits of metal that had been part of the insurgents’ bomb. They rattled off the armoured vehicles and created little puffs of dust off to either side of the highway.

One of the bomb techs returned to the crater, awkwardly crawling into the ruin itself. They seemed to take a lot longer than usual going over the crater before finally signalling the all clear. Whesker, sweating furiously beneath his uniform, helmet, and plates of armour, breathed a sigh of relief. The sooner they started, the sooner they finished and the sooner they were back at base in front of an air conditioner. He ordered the Humvees forward to secure the hole. Gunners bristled behind the shield of their hulking M2HB .50 calibre machine guns.

The bomb tech emerged, stripping out of his armoured EOD suit. He carried something out of the hole as well as his metal detector. A black oval around the size of Whesker’s head.

“Found this in the hole, sir.” The tech bowled the black rock into Whesker’s hands.

The black oval was heavier than it looked, and it looked plenty heavy enough. Whesker made sure not to drop it. It felt like a bowling ball but its surface was rough and it had the shape of an egg.

“What the hell is it?” Whesker asked.

“Figure it for some kind of artefact. Thought it might have been a bomb componant but the reducing charge and the IED didn’t leave a scratch on it, and it’s got no metal parts.”

Whesker was reminded of petrified wood. Something organic, made of a rough material, but so old it had turned to solid stone. The egg, Whesker found himself immediately thinking of it as an egg, was black as coal. Turning it in his hands, he saw a bunch of symbols, pictographs, chiselled into the side of the rock.

“Looks like there might have been some kind of chamber down there, under the road,” the tech said. “The original blast caused it to collapse in on itself. Artefact could have been down there, I don’t know, a thousand years. How do you want to proceed, sir?”

Whesker sighed, slowly turning the egg in his hands. The chiselled marks didn’t make any sense to him. There were a couple of symbols that could have been fire. Stick figures fought or fled from some kind of winged creature, larger than they were. Most of the locals thought the Americans were no better than the insurgents when it came to destroying pieces of their culture. There were processes they were meant to follow in situations that threatened cultural sites but they would require shutting down the whole highway and Whesker knew even if he followed every procedure to the letter he would still end up with a black mark in an official file somewhere for the delay. Cultural sensitivities took a backseat to the realities of war.

“Get the cultural officer up here, get them to do a quick sweep,” Whesker ordered.

The cultural officer was an ethnically Iramian young man with a Californian accent. He descended carefully into the hole but he knew the pressures Whesker was under to get this job done. Marines covered him, eyes tracking around the landscape. After two minutes, he returned shrugging and shaking his head.

“Nothing, no signs of remains. Some scraps of pottery, maybe stone, but anything significant was probably blown to nothing by the IED, sir.”

“Any idea what this is?” Whesker showed him the egg.

“No idea, sir. Not seen anything like it,” the cultural officer said, and he looked at the pictographs. “Kind of looks like a warning.”

“A warning? What makes you say that?”

The cultural officer shrugged again. “Some of the symbols, kind of look like a-, do not open, beware of the dog, kind of thing.”

“Secure this for me,” Whesker passed him the egg. “Let’s get to work, huh?”

Whesker directed his marines to trim back the jagged edges of the blasted asphalt. They carried asphalt cutters, like concrete saws, big, heavy, two-handed pieces of equipment with buzzsaw blades the size of serving trays. Teeth of industrial diamond bit deep into the road surface, cleaving chunks off the edges of the crater to tidy the outskirts of the hole. Rubble was cleared away. Concrete mixers rumbled to life as marines fed sacks and sacks of cement mix into their churning chambers. Grey silt hung in the air and settled on skin, hardening as it came into contact with sweat. Whesker made sure he was seen moving amongst it all, working with the men, directing but not pushing too hard. Generators and compressors chugged like train engines. A truck full of gravel backed up, beeping, and dumped its load into the hole. The collapsed chamber exposed by the crater, whatever its purpose, disappeared under the avalanche. Whatever mysteries that might have been associated with the egg swallowed by the earth again.

It was hot, dusty, dirty, dangerous, and thirsty work. Medics had their hands full just making sure everyone stayed hydrated. Gravel was crushed and pounded into submission until it appeared to be properly settled. Concrete was then poured over the top, wet and thick. Like cheesecake batter poured over a cookie crumb base. It seeped between the cracks and crevasses, and began to layer. Eventually, the concrete drew level with the road surface. Marines swiped over the top with concrete levellers to flatten it out. The grey soup steamed in the desert sun, baking and growing harder. A rough, ugly oblong stretched across the road, surrounded by dusty asphalt, marking where the crater had been.

Returning to base, Whesker chugged another litre of water. He, like the rest of his marines, had a layer of cement that crackled on his skin and caked his uniform. He’d almost forgotten the black egg until he saw it nestled in a plastic crate beside him. It nested, placed so that the pictographs faced up and out of the crate.

“A warning,” the lieutenant muttered.

Whesker didn’t know what the pictures meant, and he was too hot and tired to care. But something about the dark rock radiated menace. A threat from the distant past flung forward into the future. Buried in the earth for centuries like a seed.

xXx

VIPs, higher ups, and civilians in various roles, were always coming and going from Whesker’s FOB, Base Lambton. He didn’t make anything of the news two civilian scientists had arrived that morning the next day in a Super Stallion that came thundering low over the walls. That was until he was called to Major Stroud’s office in the administration building. Off duty, he’d been relaxing with a book in his air conditioned bunk, a long way from the sweat and grit and work of the day before. When the order came through, however, he was in uniform and on his way over in less than five minutes. Desert sunlight blinded him and baked the top layer of his skin as soon as he walked out the door.

“First Lieutenant Whesker, I’d like you to meet scientists Doctor David Hong, and Ms Rebecca Garland,” Stroud introduced, as Whesker entered his office.

Stroud’s office was small and utilitarian, beige. A few framed photographs and certificates lined up perfectly with the walls and cabinets but nothing that indicated Stroud had any kind of a life spent outside of uniform. Stroud, a big man with a cop moustache and a circus strongman build even in his mid-fifties, seemed to fill half the available space. The other three of them had to make do with the remaining half. Both scientists were surprisingly youthful. David Hong was stocky, well muscled, with a dark complexion and short, dark hair. Put him in uniform and he could have passed for a marine himself. Rebecca Garland looked less pleased to be there. Tall, striking, with long, red hair and skin burnished by working in the desert sun. Both wore clothing suited to working in the field rather than in a lab.

“Actually, that’s Doctor Garland as well, not Ms,” the red headed scientist said with a tight smile.

“Of course, my mistake,” Stroud said.

The major’s aide interrupted the potentially awkward moment, entering the office with a tray containing a steaming glass teapot and four cups. They were forced to shuffle to make enough room. The teapot looked incongruous in the slab hands of the major as he poured green tea into each of the cups with a kind of ceremony. Whesker took the opportunity to shake hands with both scientists. Cups laid out on the desk, Major Stroud indicated for them to sit.

“So, what can I do for you folk?” Whesker asked.

“We’re here investigating the artefact your crew uncovered yesterday,” Dr Garland said.

“Artefact? Right, the egg,” Whesker said.

“The egg?”

“Sorry, that’s just what it looked like to me. An egg.”

“Must have been one heck of a chicken.” David gave Whesker a dentist commercial smile.
“Your team, you found it filling potholes?”

Whesker felt a little defensive but got the sense David genuinely didn’t mean anything by the phrasing. “It’s more glamorous than it sounds.”

“I’m sure it is. Can you tell us about the circumstances you found it in?”

“Well, as you say, my unit and I are in charge of road upkeep for this sector. Potholes are created by a variety of factors, missile strikes, car bombs, deliberate saboutage, even good, old fashioned wear and tear. Insurgents use these as a way of concealing IEDs. This was a particularly large crater, and it appeared the blast had unearthed a small chamber that had been previously buried under the road, around the size of a grave.”

“What did the chamber look like, when you first discovered the artefact?” Rebecca asked.

“I mean, I wasn’t the one to uncover it personally, that was one of the bomb techs. I only saw it afterward, after the IED that was also discovered in the hole had been neutralised.”

“You destroyed it.” Rebecca’s lip curled.

“The explosive device left there by the local insurgents did that. We only set it off to reduce the risk to people’s lives.”

“And what did that leave?”

“Well, the artefact, apparently there wasn’t a scratch left on it. There might have been some bits of pottery, possibly statuary, in the chamber with it.”

“But you didn’t preserve any of that?”

“No, just the artefact.”

“And what condition is the chamber in now?”

“Well, it’s buried under about two tonnes of pounded gravel and fresh concrete. The highway has been reopened.”

“Even shards of pottery could have told us a great deal.”

Major Stroud interjected. “Every procedure was followed to the letter, Ms-, Doctor Garland. The cultural officer said there was nothing of value following the blast except, potentially, this egg of yours.”

“Thank you, Major,” Rebecca demurred. “I understand there are certain practicalities and real risks involved. Was there anything else about the artefact or chamber that you noticed?”

“No, no, there were some hieroglyphics on the side of the egg, I’m sure you’ll see them for yourself,” Whesker said.

“They wouldn’t be called hieroglyphics, not in this region. Pictographs, maybe,” Rebecca said.

“Sure, well, the cultural officer said they looked like a kind of warning. And I guess I would have to agree, that’s what they looked like to me.”

“A warning? A warning about what?” Dr Hong asked.

“I don’t know, I guess you’re the experts.”

They finished their tea, and Major Stroud ushered them out of the office. Whesker and the scientists hesitated in the corridor before returning to the desert heat. The aide waited with them, to escort Rebecca and David where they needed to go.

“We should inspect this egg, I can’t wait,” David said. “Based on the photos, I’ve not seen anything like it.”

“I’m sorry if I came across as a bit harsh.” Rebecca shook the lieutenant’s hand again. “Trying to keep up with this kind of work in a warzone, with those-, people, destroying anything of value they come across, it can be frustrating.”

“Of course, I understand, ma’am,” Whesker said. “Happy to be of help if there’s anything else I can do.”

xXx

The exterior of what passed for Base Lambton’s forensic lab looked the same as most of the base’s other buildings. A metal, prefabbed shell that resembled several tan shipping containers stacked side by side. The interior, however, was sterile and white. Hanging sheets of plastic created walls, hermetically sealed although thin enough that a bullet would pass through them like a pin through a soap bubble. LED lighting gleamed off polished aluminium and tightly crammed equipment. Normally the lab saw little use apart from performing chemical analysis on things like IED components and weapon typing but the equipment was top-of-the-line and varied.

Rebecca and David changed into clean scrubs and gowns. The artefact nestled on a foam bed on a table in the central part of the lab. Resting on its heavy end, it did resemble an egg in a nest, Rebecca thought. Its organic grooves, however, were hard as rock. Rebecca studied the chiselled markings.

“Looks like Sumerian, ancient cuneiform,” Rebecca said. “I don’t know much about the language, maybe we could get a translation?”

“Dating has been inconclusive so far, maybe the language will help us put it in a ballpark.” David circled the rock. “No trace elements, nothing biological, no metal. Can’t get a read on what the orb is made out of but maybe volcanic?”

“Let’s see if we can get a look inside.”

Carrying the artefact carefully to another room, Rebecca rested it in front of a lead screen. David lowered the arm of an x-ray machine so that it pointed directly at the black rock, and the two of them momentarily moved out of the room. The x-ray uploaded its images to the lab’s server. Retrieving the artefact, Rebecca and David returned to the main body of the lab.

“Oh, what the-, what the hell is that?” David hunched over the computer as he opened the x-ray files.

“What is it?” Rebecca asked.

“Come, see for yourself.”

Rebecca joined the second scientist and they both stared at the computer in amazement. A black and white image filled the screen, Rebecca could only just make out the edges of the egg-shaped artefact. Coiled up inside of it, glowing white, was a jumble of bones. They appeared to coalesce into a complete and intact skeleton.

“What kind of animal is that?” Rebecca said.

“I don’t know,” David said. “Those are wings, I’m pretty sure, wrapped around it. Ribs, spine, and that must be its tail.”

“The skull looks kind of like a snake or some kind of lizard.”

“Maybe it really is an egg! A dinosaur egg!” David grinned, only semi-serious. “Preserved somehow, and then someone carved those images into the side.”

“More likely they built the skeleton out of different parts and then entombed it inside, like a mummy. They built the egg around it and let it harden.”

Suddenly, both of them heard a sustained cracking sound from the table behind them, like a large branch being snapped in half. Eyes wide, the two of them looked at each other and then at the artefact. A wicked fracture split the side of the egg and puffs of black dust drifted into the air.

“Did you-, ah, did you put that down too hard?” David said.

While they hadn’t put its resilience to the test, the egg-shaped rock felt incredibly heavy and dense. But as the scientists watched, the artefact wiggled and an inch-thick chunk of the outer shell fell away and hit the table. Something inside shifted and reflected back the lab’s LED lights.

“It’s an egg, it really is an egg,” Rebecca said, stunned.

“For what?”

Another fracture ripped through the outer surface of the stone egg. Rocking violently, the egg tipped over then completely shattered. Thick shards and black dust exploded across the table. Something flashed a brilliant golden colour in the ruin. Before Rebecca could get a real sense of what she was looking at, a loud screech split through the room. On instinct, she went to cover her ears. A newborn scream, air filling new lungs after a millennium of waiting.

“What is that?” David yelled.

The newborn shrieked again, and scuttled across the table. It moved like a bat, on the points of two large, golden wings and a pair of clawed feet. A serpentine neck and head slithered ahead of it like a snake and a long tail whipped behind it. The creature looked too big to have fit inside the thick shell of the artefact, the size of an average cat but with proportionally large wings. It came right at Rebecca and David, not hesitating for a second.

David wheeled backward, crashing into an aluminium stool and knocking it to the ground. The noise drew the newborn’s attention. Wings unfurling, it launched itself off the table at the male scientist. Its wings, scales, every inch of its body picked up the lab’s LED lights and reflected back a brilliant gold sheen, as if its whole body was made of the metal. The newborn flapped but didn’t quite fly, colliding with David while Rebecca watched, too shocked to move.

“Get off me!” David yelled.

David held his hands up in defence. The newborn slashed at them with talons that grew from the points of its wings, where a bat’s thumb or first finger would be. Ribbons of flesh were ripped off both of David’s palms. He fell into one of the benches. The creature’s feet snatched his gown. Striking like a snake, its head jolted forward. Bloody pieces tore free from David’s head and neck. The newborn had a narrow muzzle lined with needle fangs. Blood quickly stained its golden scales. Brilliant black and gold eyes glittered hatefully above its snout and a fringe of small horns fanned out behind its head.

Rebecca broke free from her paralysis. “David!”

Rebecca went to grab the newborn with her bare hands. Patterns covered the creature’s wings, an analytical part of Rebecca’s brain filing them away and noticing they looked almost too neat and too uniform to be natural. Before she touched the newborn’s golden scales, its head snapped around on her and shrieked. Talons bristled, and golden lips drew back from tiny, bloody fangs. Rebecca threw herself backward. David sank against the bench, face going pale as he bled heavily from the neck.

An alarm button meant to bring guards running was built into one wall. Unfortunately, it just happened to be behind David. Rebecca would have to get past the creature to reach it. She thought about running but she didn’t want to abandon David. Her eyes tracked around the room. A small fire extinguisher nested in a cradle in the corner opposite the emergency button. Running for it, Rebecca pulled it out of its mounting.

David slid all the way to the ground, blood splattering the tiles and bench. Weakly, he batted at the newborn with his torn hands. Less than a minute out of the egg, however, it was already incredibly strong for a creature of its size. Its wings knocked his hands aside. Rebecca hammered the base of the fire extinguisher into the newborn’s back. Falling sideways, it spun on her and hissed. Rebecca grabbed the top of the extinguisher and swung it like a bat. The blow knocked the creature off David and into one of the flexing plastic walls. Gold and black eyes glared at Rebecca.

Snatching at the fire extinguisher’s handle, Rebecca ripped the tag off its trigger and squeezed. White powder gusted out of the nozzle. She directed it toward the newborn. Powder buried the small, golden creature. A kind of fog billowed across the floor, filling the room. Rebecca backed away, blasting the area where she thought the newborn creature was moving. More powder covered the floor and settled over David as he weakly reached for help.

“Oh, my God, my God!” Rebecca panted.

David groaned. Rebecca whipped from side to side, hunting for movement in the white mist. The analytical part of her mind was already trying to explain the creature, what it was and where it came from. The stone couldn’t possibly be an egg, not as old and petrified as it was. Maybe it was a cocoon of sorts. Maybe something the creature spun around itself for hibernation, like a cicada napping for fourteen years. Or it was some kind of genetically engineered creature in an artificial casing, left in the crater that Lieutenant Whesker described for them to find. Maybe their jostling had woken it or activated it somehow, or maybe the x-ray scan.

Something moved, a golden flash, and Rebecca blasted at it with the extinguisher. The canister ran dry. The emergency alarm, and doorway, were on the other side of the room. She would have to go past David, dying on the floor. She pulled the extinguisher back to her shoulder instead and pitched it across the room. The plastic cover over the button broke and the extinguisher hit the alarm. An insistent siren began to whoop inside and outside the room.

With a flash of golden wings, the newborn exploded out of the powder. White dust streamed behind it, falling from its scales. Rebecca screamed and covered her face, feeling the golden creature crash into her chest and latch there, talons sinking into her clothing and flesh.

xXx

Only moments after the alarm began blaring, two marines stormed into the forensic lab. They moved efficiently but carefully, expecting maybe a small fire or a medical situation. Then they spotted the white powder settling inside the main room of the lab.

“Chemical spill?” One of the marines asked.

Getting closer, the two of them saw the blood. Streaked across the benches and walls, pooling under the white powder. Swearing, both men drew their sidearms, M9 pistols. M16 rifles hung off both men’s sides but the handguns were more practical in the close quarters of the lab.

“Sir? Ma’am?” The first marine, Iglesias, said.

“There.” The second marine, Glades, pointed through the clear plastic wall.

Iglesias and Glades took in the blood covering David’s face and neck. He was already dead. They hesitated about whether they should enter due to the white powder until Iglesias spotted the fire extinguisher on the floor. Ripping open the sealed doorway, they barrelled into the lab.

“What the fuck happened in here?”

Broken bits of black rock littered the table in the middle of the room. White powder settled on the floor. Circling, the marines spotted the second scientist, Rebecca Garland, on the floor behind the bench. Several deep gouges opened her face and her throat had been ripped out, splashing an incredible amount of blood across the floor. Glassy eyes stared at the ceiling. Iglesias and Glades got a sense of movement and continued to circle the bench.

The golden newborn feasted on one of Rebecca’s thighs, where there was plenty of meat. Pant leg ripped open, it bit, tore, and threw its head back to swallow whole chunks without chewing. Blood covered its face and head. It ate as if famished. Right before the marines’ eyes it seemed to be growing. It was the size of a small dog but with batlike wings. A set of ridges sprouted down the creature’s spine. Apart from the blood, its colour was weirdly beautiful.

“What is that?” Glades said.

The newborn looked up at them and hissed. Both men opened fire, M9 pistols barking in their hands. The impacts drove the creature backward but didn’t penetrate the golden scales. The newborn shrieked loudly enough to hurt their ears, displaying its needle teeth.

The closest marine, Iglesias, thought he saw sparks crackling from the mystery animal’s mouth. Like a lighter being flicked but failing to catch. He kept firing, unloading into the golden creature. The animal looked annoyed but appeared uninjured. A glow illuminated the back of the creature’s throat. Before Iglesias could react, fire erupted from the back of the newborn’s throat, impossible, and what seemed like an impossible amount for a creature of its size. It crossed the lab like a tongue of burning napalm from a miniature flamethrower and engulfed Inglesias. The second marine, Glades, caught some on his sleeve and wheeled backward.

Iglesias screamed and dropped his gun, twisting backward. Orange flame climbed up and down his body, consuming his uniform and body armour, and flesh. As he attempted to run, his arms flailed like wings of fire.

Flames licked the ceiling and set off one of the sprinklers, which exploded into a glistening spray. The sprinkler was no match for the heat of the blaze, however. In the background, the emergency alarm kept droning. Iglesias crashed into the corner of the room, knocking equipment to the ground.

Glades swatted out the flames on his sleeve, and hesitated. The room’s only fire extinguisher was empty. The water, hitting his helmet and running down his face, was doing little to smother the fire covering Iglesias. Glades went to help the other marine anyway but then, with a leap, the newborn dragon landed on the bench in the middle of the room. It turned on Glades, screeching. Since the pistols had been ineffective, Glades slammed his back in its holster and grabbed his M16 instead. Drawing a bead on the dragon, he flipped off the safety and opened fire, all in a fraction of a second.

The dragon yawned and vomited another stream of fire. Water turned to steam. Flame slammed into Glades, throwing him backward. His rifle rose and sprayed on full-auto. Bullet stitched through the lab’s thin plastic walls, ricocheting off the metal inner shell of the building. Glades tumbled over, trying to roll and put out the flames. Iglesias collapsed, rasping.

Ignoring its own flames, the dragon leapt from the table and landed on Glades’ back. As he battled the flames, its weight was enough to drive him onto the ground. Its jaws fixed on the back of the marine’s neck. With a crack, it latched onto his vertebrae and broke it.

xXx

Whesker was filing reports when he heard the alarm. For some reason, his mind went instantly to the artefact they’d unearthed before he’d even registered what direction the alarm was coming from. He hurried out of the air conditioned building. The alarm sounded for a fire, not an attack. Once he was outside, Whesker heard it clearly coming from the lab building.

Smoke poured from vents on the sides of the lab. The metal shell contained the fire but heat radiated from the walls, noticeable from metres away even in the sweltering daylight. Marines threaded around the building. A fire suppression team ran for a vehicle and equipment. Whesker stopped, stumbled, and felt for the pistol on his hip. His mind went to the lady scientist and her smiling companion. He wondered if they were still inside or if they’d gotten out. Based on the heat coming off the laboratory, everything inside its shell would be completely incinerated. Whesker thought of the egg and the warnings chiselled on its side. Those little stick figures fleeing from depictions of fire. He knew there was no logic to the thoughts but he regretted even bringing the artefact back to base. He regretted not dropping it back in that hole where it belonged and burying it beneath two tonnes of gravel and concrete.

Suddenly, two marines exploded from behind the building. Both were engulfed in orange and yellow flame, screaming. Pillars of oily smoke poured off of them. Shocked, Whesker moved as if to help but the flames were so hot he couldn’t get close.

“Drop and roll! Drop and roll!” Whesker yelled.

Whether they heard Whesker or whether they just had the same idea, both marines dropped to their knees and tumbled forward. Writhing in the dust, they rolled and tried to smother the flames. The blazes remained glued to their uniforms and bodies, however, as if from jellied napalm. Whesker was about to hurry off and find something to help, an extinguisher, a blanket, anything, when a golden flash of movement caught the corner of his eye. Whesker turned, reaching automatically for his 9mm M9.

A batlike creature covered in golden scales scrabbled across the yard, away from the burning lab. It balanced on the points of its taloned wings. Spotting Whesker, it glared and let out a piercing screech. A frill of horns framed the back of its skull.

“What are you?” Whesker gaped.

Thinking of the black egg, Whesker remembered the creature carved on the back of it. With what looked like batlike wings and a serpentine body and tail. The creature matched it exactly. A dragon, he thought, a baby dragon. It was too big to have hatched from the egg, almost a pitbull with wings, but it almost looked like it was growing in front of Whesker’s eyes. Muscles swelled under the golden scales. A series of spikes rose along the dragon’s spine and the bones supporting its wings thickened. With its golden skin, the creature didn’t look real. Each time it stood still for even a second it appeared to be nothing more than a highly detailed sculpture. Whesker noticed symbols stamped into the membranes on the dragon’s wings and onto its scales. They looked like some of the symbols chiselled onto the egg.

Whesker pulled his M9 pistol and opened fire. Nothing was wrong with his aim, his first bullet smacked the dragon in the snout. The second drilled the dragon again in the head, right below its horned frill. Neck twisted, the dragon winced away from the blows but it did not appear actually injured. Whesker kept firing, bullets punching the small but growing dragon’s body and wings but failing to penetrate.

The dragon turned back on Whesker, fangs bared. The two burning marines were still rolling around behind Whesker. He got the sense something very bad was about to happen, and maybe in the coming seconds he’d be joining them. Before the dragon could act though, a fire suppression vehicle wailed across the base. A fresh batch of marines raced over with guns or firefighting equipment. The dragon seemed to think better of the odds and its wings snapped open. Each wing stretched until they both looked as long as Whesker was tall. They billowed, flapping hard as the dragon raced forward. Whesker threw himself out of the creature’s path.

Despite its obvious bulk, the dragon lifted off the ground and gained air quickly. Whesker fired several more times at the dragon as it took off toward the wall of the base. The shots didn’t make any difference, and the pistol locked onto empty. Gold gleaming, the dragon soared over the wall and took off into the desert.

Responding to the gunfire, half a dozen marines closed on Whesker’s position with M16s ready. Seeing him with his empty pistol but not in any way taking cover, they looked at him with confusion. Another couple of marines doused the burning men with fire extinguishers.

“Sir, what are you firing at, sir?” One of the marines asked.

Whesker looked back at them, stunned. “Dragon.”

xXx

The next hour was chaos. The fire in the forensic lab was extinguished and the two burnt marines were taken to the base hospital. Whesker was asked what he’d seen repeatedly, with varying levels of desperation, anger, and frustration. He refused to change his answer, explaining as best he could what had happened. Eventually, he was shuffled off to one of the strategic planning rooms until the situation was settled.

The planning room was set out like a classroom, with rows of folding chairs and attached desks. A podium and huge smartboard sat at the front of the room. Whesker slouched, face buried in his hands. Air conditioning filtered the air coming into the room but he could smell smoke seeping in from outside. He shot upright as the door opened. Major Stroud and a gaggle of ranking officers entered.

“We’ve got four dead, and two marines in critical condition,” Stroud said. “You want to tell me again what the hell you saw?”

“You won’t like it, sir.” Whesker stood to attention.

“A dragon, that’s what you’re going to tell me? A dragon?”

“Yes, sir, I believe that’s what it was and I believe it set that fire.”

“I’ve got to explain why we have two civilians on ice, and you want me to go blaming a mythical creature, lieutenant?”

“Apparently not, sir. Not mythical, that is.”

Stroud sighed, looking ten years older. “Explain yourself again, marine. Tell me what you saw.”

“It was a lizard-looking creature, roughly the size of a-, medium-sized dog, completely covered in golden scales. It had wings, large ones, a snakelike tail and neck, and horns. Sir, I emptied my sidearm into that creature. I struck it, I’d say, at least six times minimum. Didn’t seem to make a difference, bullets bounced right off its scales. It’s like they were made of metal but not literally gold, that’d be too soft. It emerged from behind the lab just behind those two burning marines. My suspicion is it set the fires, and it was about to burn me as well but it heard reinforcements and it took off. It looked too big to fly, but it flew off.”

“It flew away.”

“Yes, sir. With respect, sir, there must have been something captured on camera that verifies my story. There must be others who saw something?”

“Unfortunately, there were. I would like nothing better than to dismiss the fire as a chemical explosion and lock you in a padded cell but I find myself unable.”

“I appreciate that, sir.”

“The harddrive that recorded the camera feeds from the lab was destroyed in the fire. But several cameras picked up-, something, golden, apparently alive, escaping the lab and then flying over the walls. Half a dozen witnesses matched descriptions on it as well. You can’t all be crazy, so unfortunately I must conclude you’re telling the truth. Where the hell did this thing come from?”

“I think it came from the egg, sir.”

“The egg?”

“The artefact the civilian scientists were working on. The shape of the creature matched the picture carved onto the back of the egg. And there were patterns on the dragon’s wings and scales that matched the symbols on the egg as well. It was too big to have just hatched but at the same time, I think it was growing. Getting bigger right before my eyes.”

“Jesus Christ, so we don’t even know how big this thing could get? You’re saying we’re dealing with some kind of magical animal?”

“I can only tell you what I saw and my impressions at the time, certainly I’m no expert in dragons, sir.”

“What can we do then?” One of the other officers snapped.

“Wait, I suppose, sir,” Whesker said. “Wait for it to strike again.”

xXx

They didn’t have to wait long. Base Lambton continued to try to make some sense of what had happened. Night fell and a slew of reports came in from one of the local villages. First, a field of livestock had been found slaughtered, mutilated, and burned. Then, there were fires. The village had come under attack but by what they couldn’t explain. A marine patrol responded, and they too came under attack. Panicked reports screamed about something in the air, explosions, and fire from the sky. Whatever it was, it was a good deal more powerful than the dragon had been when it left the base.

A small convoy scrambled out of Lambton. Four Humvees equipped with fifty cal M2HB machine guns and an APC filled with marines. The platoon were frontline guys, Lieutenant Howerton, Sergeant Myers, and ten marines under their command. Major Stroud insisted Whesker accompany them into the village in a kind of advisory role. So, covered in combat gear and magazines of ammunition, a kitted out M16 between his knees and helmet riding low on his head, Whesker found himself crammed on a bench with other combat ready marines in the back of the APC.

Whesker had no idea what his advisory role was meant to involve. Covered in golden scales, the dragon wouldn’t be hard to spot or easy to mistake. Presumably once identified, the plan was to point at it and shoot. But Whesker was the only living person who’d gotten an uninterrupted look at the thing and he was the one who’d made the connection between it and the artefact, so Stroud wanted him along.

Truth be told, Whesker didn’t know how to feel about the decision to include him. He was nervous, of course, scared, but the same possibility of dying accompanied every trip he and every other marine took outside the base. He’d seen the dragon shrug off bullets from his M9, but he and the other marines, and especially the Humvees, were armed now with much, much bigger guns. A large part of him was genuinely excited to be on the hunt. No one slayed dragons anymore. If this creature was really part of an ancient species confined to myth, or even some kind of magical construct given the symbols he’d seen inscribed on its scales, then Whesker was seeing something that hadn’t been seen for a thousand years. If nothing else, Whesker wanted to be a part of whatever the hell happened next.

“With all due respect, I want to be clear that when we get out there this is my show.” Lieutenant Howerton was an imposing figure with hard eyes, seated across from Whesker. “Appreciate your advice, but you move when I move and you follow orders when I give them, understood?”

“No argument here, lieutenant,” Whesker replied, seeing no value in getting into a dick-measuring contest with the other marine.

The APC bounced over rough patches of road. Not the work of him and his crew, Whesker thought with some professional pride. If this was the dragon, it had fled into the steppes once leaving the base. The lesser travelled roads were cracked and busted but thankfully less likely to be hiding improvised explosive devices.

“Destination coming up on the right,” a voice crackled through their headsets. “We have multiple fires, visibility is close to nil. Crowds are massing in the streets, looks like they’re attempting to extinguish the blazes.”

The convoy headed into the heart of the village and to the last reported position of the missing patrol before grinding to a halt. Humvees covered the APC. Soon as the ramp fell open, smoke flooded the interior. Weapons raised, Howerton’s marines poured out of the vehicle.

“Roll out! Roll out!”

Marines took up defensive positions, flanking the column of armoured vehicles. Whesker stuck close to the other lieutenant. Orange blazes cast a hellish glow through the pall of smoke. The marines wore eye protection and filtration masks but the air still tasted like ash. Human figures flitted through the smoke. Most appeared to be trying to control the fires by dumping buckets of sand onto the burning houses, attempting to smother the flames, or they were fleeing with their possessions. Marines barked at some to stay back or to quit moving. With a scene this chaotic and tense, things were only a trigger pull away from descending into complete anarchy.

“Eyes on one of the patrol vehicles!” A marine yelled.

Half a dozen houses on the street burned, and a couple were reduced to smouldering piles. The heat was blistering and made their body armour feel like medieval plate. Amongst it all, the Humvee sitting on melted wheels with its interior blazing had been hard to discern. Whesker moved closer along with Howerton and his marines, sweat oiling his face. The Humvee’s armour was blackened. Its roof-mounted machine gun drooped, barrel melted and ammunition burst. Whesker got glimpses of what might have been bodies inside the vehicle.

“What the hell could have done this?” Howerton said. “There’s no blast damage, just scorch marks.”

“What I saw couldn’t have done this,” Whesker said. “Not at the size it was.”

Howerton’s men secured the scene, covered by the Humvees they’d brought with them. More marines would have to be mobilised to search for the injured or dead. All around them, however, villagers kept fighting the blazes and moving like wraiths through the smoke.

Suddenly, gunfire erupted from outside their circle. Not an M16 but the rattle of an AK-47. Bullets ripped apart the webbing and pouches crossing one marine’s combat vest and knocked him to the ground.

“Contact! Contact!”

M16s shot upright and roared in response. Bullets ripped holes in the veil of smoke surrounding them. More AKs chattered in the darkness. Whesker stayed close to Howerton as they went low. Locals scattered clear of the firefight, abandoning their burning homes.

“Your fucking dragon! Bullshit just distracted us!” Howerton snarled at Whesker.

The insurgents had them in a box. Gunfire came from all sides, sizzling by their heads. Having destroyed the Humvee, or seen it burning, they’d known the Americans would come to investigate so they’d set an ambush. Through the smoke, Whesker saw heads and shoulders bobbing up and down from behind cover. He fired back. Blood rushed through his veins. Guns, AK-47s, appeared and chattered, muzzle flashes spearing through the smoke. The first marine who’d been hit was dragged backward, hurting but not seriously injured.

“Grenade!”

Fired from an underbarrel launcher, a HE grenade round sheared into a low wall being used as shelter by two of the local insurgents, shattering with a thunderous clap. Shrapnel ripped through the smoke. Two of the fifty cals opened up, deafening even through Whesker’s ear protection. Short bursts pounded walls and standing structures to dust. Fifty calibre rounds annihilated the insurgents’ cover. Whesker saw a couple of the gunmen turned to soup. The force imparted by just one of the bullets as it struck anywhere on a human body simply liquified the surrounding area. Jellied flesh and muscle and bits of bone reduced to granules like ground glass. Fires kept blazing, cooking them all inside their body armour and vehicles.

Something stirred the smoke. A gust of wind momentarily flattened the flames and pushed the thick clouds of ash toward the ground, thickening the air around the marines even further. Some of the insurgents fled, and Whesker heard cries of fear and surprise. He looked up and saw a dark shape pass overhead. Most of it hid in the smoke but Whesker could see glitters of gold catching reflections of the flames.

“Lieutenant,” Whesker said. “Lieutenant!”

Howerton glanced over at him, annoyed. “What?”

“It’s here.”

Another sudden gust blew a cloud of embers and smoke sideways. Tracing it to its origin, Whesker got a sense of something huge hovering in the air against all logic. Like a chopper or a jet with VTOL engines, but totally silent. The size was out of proportion with the animal Whesker had seen back at the base but the silhouette looked the same. Two tremendous wings attached to a muscular barrel of a torso. Two clawed feet and a snaking tail, with a horned head attached to a long neck.

A column of orange flame ripped out of the sky and blasted one of the insurgents’ positions. Heat threw Whesker backward. The power of the blast felt astonishing. It was like fire thrown by an angry god, or a fuel air explosive that just went on and on. Whesker could feel the oxygen being sucked out of the air to feed the flames, creating a kind of vacuum. The insurgents hit by the blast simply disintegrated. One stone house imploded, burning debris blown backward. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the fire stopped. Smoke gusting, the winged shape moved on.

“What the fuck was that?” Howerton yelled.

Smoke and flames gusted and a winged shape moved against the night sky. Whesker searched above them. Most of the gunfire halted as both marines and insurgents tried to make sense of what had just happened.

Another pillar of fire started at the far end of the street and carved toward them. Dirt turned to glass, and shattered. Fire scorched the front walls of houses. Scrubby trees spontaneously ignited before the flames even touched them. More people were roasted or blown backward. The convoy of vehicles sat directly in the fire’s path along with Whesker and the platoon of marines.

“Scatter! Scatter!” Whesker yelled.

Ignoring the threat of the insurgents, Whesker heaved to his feet and ran for an alley between houses. Most of the marines did the same. One of the Humvees wheeled backward and its gunner tilted back to fire at the sky.

“We need air support!” Howerton yelled.

Fire slammed into the leading Humvee, cratering the front of the armoured vehicle. In spite of the reinforced glass, the windshield and windows melted in molten goop. Armour turned black and blistered. With a scream slashed in half, the marine in the machine gun nest was incinerated. Others, caught in the open, were immolated or set alight by the fringes of the flames. Whesker felt the fire on his back and threw himself forward. Flipping over, he saw the winged shape silhouetted and glittering gold.

Burning wreckage and more smoke choked the street. People screamed and marines fired at the sky. The insurgents were forgotten, or were possibly allied with the marines for the moment against the dragon.

Whesker scrambled to his feet and back to the street. Two of the Humvees had been destroyed and the APC he’d arrived in looked badly burnt. It was impossible to distinguish the burning bodies from the other debris. Smoke blackened the air, reducing true visibility to an arm’s length in front of him.

Another marine sprinted by, screaming. Flames wrapped around the man’s chest and arms, eating through his uniform and into his flesh. Whesker thought it might have been Sergeant Myers. Whesker started forward to help but the flames were so hot that the ammunition magazines strapped across the sergeant’s chest began to cook off. They exploded, one setting off another then setting off more. Burning bullets sprayed like fireworks. One must have struck Myers under the chin because he stiffened and went down suddenly, silently, and stayed down. His body continued burning, magazines exploding on his chest.

“Fuck, shit! Fucking dragon!” Whesker scanned the smoke.

Another man lurched out of the darkness, covering his eyes as he hacked and coughed. He wasn’t a marine but instead dressed like one of the locals. Blinded, the man stumbled right into Whesker’s shoulder and bounced off. An AK-47 hung from one of the man’s hands. An insurgent, separated from his allies and lost in the ashcloud. Most of his face was covered, scarf wrapped around his mouth and nose, and the top of his head, leaving just his eyes exposed. For a moment, the two of them only regarded one another. The man’s eyes were red and weeping from the smoke but he recognised that he’d just run straight into one of the enemy and he started to heave his AK into place. Whesker’s M16 was there first and he squeezed a short burst directly into the insurgent’s chest, driving him backward. He fell to the street, dead.

Smoke and flame billowed and the dragon descended. Whesker felt the gusts from its wings as it hovered, birdlike, and then came down for a landing on one of the destroyed Humvees. The flames didn’t bother it at all. Blackened armour crumpled under the dragon’s talons, its weight pushing the wreck into the dirt. Whesker gaped.

“Dear God,” Whesker whispered.

It was like a dinosaur, a monster out of Earth’s antediluvian past. It must have been the size of a small plane. Its torso was as long as an old fashioned American sedan. Its serpentine neck and head were just as long, and its tail even longer. Each wing stretched for forty feet. Whesker wondered how it could have grown so large so quickly. His mind went to the reports of slaughtered livestock they’d gotten before everything went to hell. It must have been killing them, feeding, and growing.

Everything about the dragon was impossible since it hatched from that stone egg. Its fire breath, its flight, its rate of growth, and its golden scales. When it stopped moving, it still looked like a massive statue. Armoured scales crossed the dragon’s body. Those symbols Whesker had seen earlier were still printed into its flesh, bigger than ever, much bigger, and clearly some kind of language. They consisted of a lot of triangles and arrows, straight lines and points. Whesker thought of another creature from legend, from the Middle East he believed, Jewish folklore, the golem. Creatures made from mud or clay and brought to life by the placing of a magic scroll in their mouths. He imagined one of them might also come with symbols carved into unbreakable flesh, either as warnings or instructions. Again, he thought that maybe that’s what the dragon really was. Not a dinosaur, a forgotten species, but some kind of ancient construct.

The dragon raised its reptilian head, glaring. Its eyes were black and boiling gold. Lips drew back from fangs the size of combat knives. A bony frill fringed with golden horns framed the back of its head. It didn’t just look bigger, it looked older, ancient, with thick and craggy scales and a barbed tail.

Splitting the night open, one of the remaining M2HB machine guns opened up and was followed by the second. The two Humvees that hadn’t yet been destroyed were parked at angles between the burning buildings, beyond the APC. Rounds drilled into and pounded the golden dragon. It shrieked and raised one wing defensively. Whesker saw impacts crater the golden membrane stretched between the wing’s thick struts of bone but they didn’t penetrate. The golden skin was too thick. At its current size, the fifty cal bullets bounced off it like Whesker’s pistol rounds had earlier.

Although there seemed little point, Whesker raised his M16 and joined in. The barrage of bullets drove the dragon back without injuring it. Whesker at least tried to aim for its eyes and mouth. The dragon tucked its face behind its wing. Rounds bounced off its bony frill without leaving damage.

More of the marines regrouped. Whesker saw four, led by Lieutenant Howerton, gathered near the nose of the battered APC. M16s arrayed, they fired in overlapping bursts. Underbarrel grenade launchers clapped, HE rounds streaking into the dragon. While no one expected to find a creature like this waiting for them, they’d recovered fast. Unfortunately, it didn’t help them. Explosions drove the dragon backward, knocking it off the burning Humvee, but otherwise only pissed it off. It raised its head again, screeching, and the back of its throat glowed.

“Get back! Get back, move!” Whesker tried to shout over the gunfire.

Fire streamed from the dragon’s mouth, blazing a brilliant orange and yellow. So bright it was hard to look at, it struck with hurricane force. Howerton and two of his marines were wiped out in an instant, flames stripping away their clothes, skin, flesh, charring them down to disintegrating skeletons. Their guns and magazines exploded. Only one of the marines managed to get clear, racing around the side of the APC. The heat was incredible. Whesker felt like his goggles were melting against his face. Air burned in his lungs like hot coals.

Walking on the points of its wings, the dragon scrambled forward. Nose to hips, the golden animal was longer than the APC. While not as bulky it made up for that with the size of its folded wings. The fleeing marine stopped and fired directly into the dragon’s face. Ignoring the shots, the dragon lunged and seized the marine. Blood splattered as the marine folded with a crunch, impaled on dozens of teeth. The dragon threw its head back, not quite big enough to swallow the unlucky marine and all his equipment in one bite but close. It savaged the man, ripping him in half, and swallowed him in two bites instead. The dragon then turned on the APC as if seeing it as a threat or source of food. Climbing on top, it raked at the vehicle with the huge golden talons on the joints of its wings. Somehow the claws carved through inches thick ballistic armour like it was aluminium foil. The Humvees continued firing, trying to make their shots count. Bullets raked the APC and the dragon, throwing sparks but doing no damage.

Whesker realised the dragon’s field of targets was quickly narrowing. All the locals and insurgents had fled. Howerton’s platoon was dead. Only the Humvees and Whesker remained once the dragon finished with the APC. Small teams of marines filled each Humvee, and they were Whesker’s only way back to base.

Carrying his useless M16, Whesker sprinted along the street to the closer of the two Humvees. The noise from the heavy machine guns was a physical force. Running to one of the windows, Whesker slapped at it. A surprised face looked back at him.

“Open up! Open up!”

The thick door swung open and Whesker clambered inside. He and two other marines filled the rear seat, just forward of the legs of the machine gunner. Spent cartridges rained down on the roof overhead and rattled by the windows.

“Go! We need to return to base!” Whesker said.

“What about the others?” One of the other marines asked.

“Dead, they’re all dead! We need to get back to base and warn them, give them the full story!”

“Sir, yes sir!”

The driver didn’t need any more excuse than that. The golden dragon, completely unharmed by the bullets and grenades, peeled the APC in front of them open like a can of anchovies. Throwing their Humvee into reverse, the driver hammered backward. Overhead, the gunner was jolted around but kept firing.

Whesker keyed his radio. “Fall back! Fall back! Return to base, get out of here!”

The Humvee smashed through a couple of piles of smouldering wreckage and the second Humvee followed them. Bursts from the fifty cals tapered and died as they got some distance from the dragon. Through the smoke, the creature became indistinct but it noticed their absence and raised its head to watch them escape. Wings snapped out to their full length. Bigger, the dragon was still getting bigger. But in spite of its growth, the dragon took off as those enormous wings started flapping. Flames and smoke and debris were blown clear. It lifted higher into the night sky.

“Where is it? Where the fuck is it?” Whesker twisted and turned in his seat.

The Humvees roared free of the smoke haze surrounding the village. Wheels tore across craters and potholes. They gained speed. Stony fields opened up around them and the sky cleared. The marines peered upward, searching.

“I don’t see nothing!” Someone said.

Whesker ripped off his goggles and some of his protective gear, soot and sweat smearing his features. A dark shadow moved against the night, blotting out stars. Its golden outline shimmered in the rising moonlight. Drifting on huge, batlike wings, the dragon soared overhead. And then it got bigger, falling, swooping down on the road and the marines.

“Incoming!”

The dragon came at them from directly overhead. The marine with the fifty cal wrestled with the gun but couldn’t angle it at the dragon. Wind gusted off the dragon’s wings. Its jaws opened and the back of its throat glowed.

The driver braked and wrenched the wheel sideways. Their Humvee gracelessly slalomed off the side of the road, wheels cutting up dirt and stones. Vomiting a stream of liquid flame, the dragon glassed the highway ahead of them. Flames mopped from side to side, so hot they melted the asphalt in seconds. The driver hesitated but then plunged forward, pushing over a sheet of flame that stuck to the road. The second Humvee followed. Flames stuck to the wheels of both vehicles, spinning. The dragon swallowed its flame and sailed overhead, snarling.

“Go! Go, move!” Whesker yelled.

“I’m moving, sir!” The driver replied, gas pedal hammered to the floor.

The dragon dipped and filled the empty highway behind them. Light flashed on its knifelike fangs. It sailed low enough, wings spread, that the gunners could bring their fifty cals back into play. The heavy machine guns thundered, tracers slicing through the night air. Heavy slugs slammed the dragon around the shoulders and wings, annoying but not injuring the creature. Roaring, it closed the distance on the two vehicles.

Fire gusted from between the dragon’s jaws. The second Humvee tried to swerve but the dragon tracked it. Flames arced and scorched the back of the Humvee. The gunner fell back inside the cupola, face and hands burned. The gunner for Whesker’s Humvee tried to help, aiming and firing at the dragon’s face. More bullets bounced off its horns.

The second Humvee swerved but its back end was already burning. The dragon flew hard until it was right on top of the vehicle and breathed a powerful stream of fire down on top of the Humvee. The dragon’s fire surrounded the armoured vehicle like a living thing. It invaded through the gunner’s cupola and attacked the windows, melting them. The men inside burned, screaming, the cabin becoming a crematorium. The dragon swooped and hit the Humvee so hard that it flipped onto its side and slid off the highway.

“What do we do?” Someone said.

“Keep driving, they’re already dead!” Whesker said. “Head for the base!”

Leaving the dragon and the burning Humvee behind, Whesker’s truck hurtled down the broken highway. For better or worse, the dragon seemed more concerned with prying its way inside the roasted Humvee than in following them. Its head dipped, feasting on the charcoaled bodies inside.

xXx

Guards bristled as the sole remaining Humvee hurtled toward the entrance to Base Lambton. Spotlights painted the vehicle. The driver braked and they heaved to a stop. Rather than go through the usual procedures, Whesker and the other marines slammed their doors open and poured out. They reeked of smoke and their eyes were wild and rimmed in red.

“What the hell is going on?” One of the marine guards yelled. “Sir?”

“Monster, dragon, it was waiting at the village,” Whesker said. “Sound an alarm, the whole base needs to lock down and go to high alert!”

“Dragon, really?” A second guard said.

Something shrieked, the birdlike cry splitting the air. The marines looked up in either confusion or terror. They’d led the dragon right back to the base, Whesker thought. Last time it was here, it had fled. Now it was bigger, much, much bigger, and practically invulnerable. And it was looking for food to fuel its rapid growth.

“Oh, shit,” Whesker said.

The dragon sailed over the base, its golden scales gleaming in the reflected lights. Alarms began to blare. It was obvious the marine guards were too stunned to react. Whesker shoved his way past them and into the entrance to the base.

“Lock it down, come on!” Whesker said.

Alarms howled and fire teams of marines rushed into various positions, some of the men and women shoving themselves into uniforms and collecting weapons as they ran. Whesker did his best to thread through the chaos. Then, across the base, the dragon breathed a sheet of flame over one of the walls. Screams echoed under the alarms. The blast had been aimed somewhere in the direction of the forensic lab. Gunfire cracked, marines with M16s firing wildly into the sky.

Whesker ran for the armoury. Marines filed into the building and armed themselves. Whesker joined them but his mind was racing, knowing bullets from the M16s, grenades, even fifty cals would bounce right off the creature’s golden scales. He kept a death grip on his M16 all the same as his eyes scanned the sky. As he entered the armoury, a new thought occurred to him. Marines collected M16s, magazines, handguns and grenades, but Whesker stepped in front of the armourer.

“Flashbangs, give me flashbangs,” Whesker said.

“Flashbangs?” The armour repeated.

“As many as you can give me.”

Streaked in ash, looking slightly dazed, Whesker left the armoury with some fresh magazines for his M16 and stuffing half a dozen M84 diversionary stun ‘flashbang’ grenades into his combat webbing. Whesker knew exactly where he should be reporting to but those positions were useless when trying to repeal a bulletproof enemy with wings. Another plan coalesced in his head and he took off running toward the motor pool.

At the helipads, a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion spooled up. Its engines hissed and then turned into a concentrated whine. Twin .50 GAU-21 machine guns bristled from their window mounted positions at the front of the craft. As soon as the helicopter started to lift, however, the dragon appeared in the sky behind it. Wings beating, the dragon regarded the gunship as if trying to decide whether it was an ally or an enemy. The pilot began to circle around to bring its primary weapons into play. Launching countermeasures, the Super Stallion unleashed a smoky fantail of flares that lit up the night.

Designed for drawing off heat-seeking missiles, the countermeasures did nothing to deter the dragon. If anything, they helped the creature make up its mind. Throat glowing, it spewed a solid stream of fire into the hovering aircraft. Before it could fire a shot, fire washed over and consumed the helicopter. Its canopy imploded, melting and collapsing on the pilot and co-pilot, burying them in molten metal and glass. Flames ripped open the Super Stallion’s fuel tanks and they ruptured into a bloated fireball that tore through the aircraft’s structure. Burning pieces scattered across the helipad and the rest of the base. Ammunition erupted from the mass like a lethal fireworks show. As the remains of the helicopter smashed back down on the concrete, the dragon bathed the other aircraft it could see parked around the helipads in fire, destroying them in a series of thundering blasts.

In the chaos, access to the motor pool was unimpeded. Marines were taking up positions, however, to guard it and the rest of the base from invaders. Carrying his M16, ammunition, and flashbangs, Whesker ran into the motor pool and searched among the ranks of weathered Humvees, APCs, and other vehicles. He looked for the trucks they used when performing road repairs. The equipment he wanted would be stored in one of them.

“Here we are,” Whesker said to himself.

Powerful halogens lit the motor pool, creating a pattern of harsh, whitish light and deep wells of shadow. Whesker stopped beside one of the trucks. Hanging his M16 off his shoulder, Whesker opened one of the truck’s equipment lockers and found exactly what he was looking for. Now, he needed to get the dragon’s attention. He touched the flashbangs on his chest. Inside the equipment locker were also flares they used to mark off patches of broken road. Whesker collected a couple of them and turned to climb the armoured truck.

Taking some strapping from his vest, Whesker wound three of the M84 flashbangs together. From on top of the truck, he could see across the motor pool to the walls of the base. He scanned the sky. A golden blur streaked out of the dark, throat glowing as it came in for another strafing run. Anti-aircraft guns boomed, tracer rounds creating blazing streaks of orange. They spiralled and drilled into the creature but did nothing to deter it. The dragon unleashed a blast of fire that ripped through the other side of the base. Something exploded, spraying debris and smoke and screams.

Whesker took one of the three flashbangs he hadn’t strapped together and wrenched out both of its safety pins. With the fuse activated, Whesker pulled his arm back and hurled the grenade as high into the air as he could. Whesker turned away, letting his mouth drop open to protect against the concussion as he covered his eyes and ears.

The flashbang exploded, a brilliant coruscant of white phosphorus and clap of sound. Even amidst the gunfire and screaming, the shockwave travelled the length of the base. Spent, remains of the casing fell, smoking, out of the sky and clattered off one of the armoured trucks. The dragon, sailing across the outskirts of the base, looked up and fixed on the source of the noise.

Whesker straightened, only hearing of an echo of the stun grenade in his ears. He ripped the caps off the two road flares he’d taken from the equipment locker, igniting them both. They blazed, hissing, with hellish red glares that left traces on his eyeballs. Whesker turned back in the dragon’s direction and raised the flares over his head.

“Hey, hey! Hey! Over here, motherfucker!” Whesker yelled.

The dragon’s golden wings billowed. Ignoring a length of anti-aircraft fire that stitched down its side, it zeroed in on the flares. The red lights were something new and it seemed more curious than anything else. Fixated on Whesker, the dragon powered its way directly across the base.

Whesker continued waving the flares, drawing the dragon’s attention, until he could see the black and gold of its eyes. The back of the dragon’s throat glowed. It was going to blast him, Whesker realised. Tossing the flares away to either side, Whesker leapt forward at the last second. He slipped into the narrow gap between two trucks, taking the drop easily and letting himself fall flat. He rolled beneath one of the trucks as fire roared across the top of the vehicles overhead. The heat was unbelievable, Whesker felt like he’d been thrown into a giant oven. Sheets of flame fell to both sides of the truck as he protected his face and lay on top of his weapons. Fortunately, the trucks themselves held and their fuel tanks didn’t rupture.

Just as suddenly as it had hit, the heat mostly drained away. Whesker looked around and then kept rolling to the other side of the truck, between the massive wheels. The concrete felt scorching hot. Vehicles around Whesker were blackened and a few spot fires continued to burn.

The dragon circled, golden scales gleaming. It clearly wasn’t sure whether it had finished with whatever made the loud, white blast and attracted its attention with the red flares. Whesker raised his M16 and fired almost straight up. He didn’t expect to do any harm to the dragon of course, he just needed to keep its attention on him. Emptying half the magazine, he circled and disappeared behind one of the trucks again.

Wings furling, the dragon came down for a landing in an open part of the motor pool. It was definitely larger than it had been even back in the village, it must have weighed as much as one of the armoured Humvees. Its head, from nose to bone frill, was as long as a golf cart.

Whesker grabbed the three flashbangs he’d strapped together. They were attached to a long loop, like a belt. Before he could use them, Whesker saw four marines racing across the motor pool. They took up defensive positions behind one of the Humvees and raised their M16s.

“No, fall back! Fall back!” Whesker yelled.

The other marines didn’t hear him. Opening up on the dragon, their rifles sawed through the air and grenade launchers thumped. Grenades exploded against the dragon’s hide, momentarily driving it backward, and bullets bounced off the creature. The dragon swung around on them and vomited a stream of fire. Two of the marines were immolated, flames swallowing the Humvee they were using as cover. The other two spilled backward, barely staying clear.

Whesker ripped the pins out of all three of the M84s he’d strapped together. He hadn’t intended to use others’ lives as a distraction but he felt it would be stupid to waste the opportunity. Soon as all three flashbangs were armed, he grabbed the end of the strapping, swung it around his head, and hurled them at the dragon as hard as he could. They sailed through the air and hit the dragon in the side of the head. Sliding down its bony frill, the strap caught on one of the dragon’s golden horns. The landing had been more luck than skill but the placement was absolutely perfect.

Whesker turned away, protecting his eyes and ears, mouth open. Feeling the stun grenades catch on its horn, the dragon started to turn. With a deafening clap, the three grenades exploded. A halo of blazing white surrounded the dragon’s head. The combined noise of all three M84s was more of a physical force than a sound, the shockwave rattling across the motor pool.

Shrieking in agony, the dragon thrashed its head from side to side. Blinded, its eyes stared into nothing as its golden eyelids rapidly blinked. Equilibrium destroyed, it staggered and fell. The creature might have been immune to bullets and explosions, the projectiles unable to penetrate its skin, but its eyes and ears were still vulnerable. The stun grenades, a combination of blinding light and deafening sound, had disorientated it as they would any living thing.

Whesker turned, ears throbbing but not deafened. He didn’t know how long he had before the dragon recovered. His M16 hung on its strap but he left it alone. Instead, he returned to the equipment locker he’d opened on the truck. A few fires still burned around the vehicle but the contents of the locker were unharmed.

Reaching inside, Whesker unhooked and removed one of the asphalt cutters they used to trim away the jagged edges of potholes and craters before they filled them. A bulky, two-handed industrial tool covered in bright, scuffed orange. A steel alloy buzzsaw the size of a serving tray bristled from the mouth of the tool. Serrated fangs, artificial diamond tempered to cut through even the hardest materials, ringed the blade. A pull cord, like a chainsaw, jutted from the side of the device. Whesker flicked the starter and yanked the cord as hard as he could. Gasoline sloshed inside the cutter’s tank. Snarling and coughing bluish smoke, the engine rumbled to life on the first pull.

Whesker moved in on the dragon from the side. It didn’t react to the sound of the asphalt cutter. Streaks and scores covered the winged reptile’s golden scales, as well as those strange and ancient symbols, but they hadn’t broken the skin. Whesker had seen the asphalt cutters slice through rock and concrete like styrofoam. He’d used them himself for the same purpose. He had no idea whether the diamond teeth would actually penetrate the dragon’s scales but he didn’t have a magic sword pulled from a stone. He didn’t have a katana with a blade sharpened to a single atom. The battered, orange asphalt cutter was what he had to work with, and if he didn’t succeed then he was probably dead.

Talons gouging the concrete, the dragon lurched from wing to wing. Its clawed feet slipped from under it. Whesker was cautious, moving so as not to be caught by the dragon’s wings or tail. The dragon coughed out a couple of short bursts of flame, streaking across the lot like brief blasts from a flamethrower. One of the blasts set another Humvee on fire but fortunately neither came close to hitting Whesker, although he felt the intense heat wash over him. Cutter rumbling, Whesker got within range of the creature’s wings. The dragon was clearly still blind and deaf but it was recovering, and it was pissed off.

Whesker aimed for the base of the dragon’s golden throat. Lunging forward, he depressed the trigger of the asphalt cutter. The rumbling engine turned into a high-pitched whine and the buzzsaw’s teeth disappeared into a blur. Ducking under the creature, Whesker rammed the blade into the dragon’s neck. Diamond teeth bit deep into the golden scales, bit deep and sank into more yielding flesh underneath. The dragon screamed, outraged. Pulling the asphalt cutter backward, Whesker met considerable resistance but he managed to tear a ragged gash across the dragon’s throat. Scorching heat spilled out of the wound, burning his hands and face. The dragon shrieked and thrashed, leaping and then coming down on the ends of its wings. Whesker dropped so he wasn’t flattened and then scrambled clear.

Carting the rumbling asphalt cutter, Whesker sprinted across the lot to get free of the dragon’s movements before he looked back. The dragon tottered from foot to foot and wing to wing. A blazing bright, golden liquid started to run from the gash in the dragon’s throat, so hot it hurt to look at. Flaming, it scorched and ate away at the concrete as it splattered the ground under the dragon. Whesker realised the asphalt cutter was smoking. The blade was deformed and melting, turning to liquid. He tossed it aside. His face and hands felt hot and looked reddened as if from a bad sunburn.

Head jerking forward, the dragon appeared to be struggling to breathe. More golden liquid spilled out of its jaws instead, like flaming jet fuel. Whesker took hold of his M16 but didn’t raise it, just watching the dragon bleed out. Finally it fell forward, wings unfurling and laying flat, and it failed to get up again. He watched the light fade from its black and boiling gold eyes.

xXx

“Top of the hour, you’re with Jacquie Summers for C7 News. And marking five years since it was revealed to the world that dragons were not simply monsters of stories and legend, I’m joined by America’s first official dragon slayer, Colonel Michael Whesker. Thanks very much for joining us.”

“Pleasure’s all mine, Jacquie.”

Whesker was five years older but looked more like ten, having spent those five years operating in the desert sun of an active combat zone. Fighting fit, however, he remained athletic and appeared comfortable on camera, with a ready smile. He demurred at the accolades and fame his act five years ago had earned him, although not the promotions, and he was always available to be interviewed. He sat in a box separate from the journalist, the two of them in separate studios, with news tickers scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

“Five years on, are we still any closer to understanding the origins of these creatures, like the one you fought?”

“Well, I’m not an academic. I know there are a lot of theories, truth be told it seems like I hear a completely new theory every day of the week. So to answer your question, no, I don’t believe we’re really any closer than we were five years ago.”

“Do any of those theories, though, make more sense to you? You must have your own thoughts.”

“I mean, as you’re aware, Jacquie, the dragon I faced had symbols on its scales and wings that were later determined to be ancient Sumerian. I think, you know, the theory that these animals were somehow created as ancient weapons of war makes the most sense to me. But how something like that came about, I really don’t know.”

“As the situation stands now, would it be fair to say we are also even further from finding a path out of Iram and the region than we were five years ago? That US forces are even more deeply entrenched?”

Whesker looked down with a well practised shake of the head and chuckle. “I’m not going to get drawn into areas of policy.”

“But the situation in the region-,”

“I’m not a big picture kind of guy, Jacquie, I prefer to keep my boots on the ground.”

“Well, be that as it may, you’ve certainly become a symbol of-,”

In his box opposite the journalist, Whesker stiffened. His eyes were clearly drawn to something off-camera and he held up a hand to silence her. Jacquie hesitated, her expression wavering.

“Colonel?”

“I’m sorry, Jacquie, I’m going to have to cut this short.”

“But, Michael-,”

“I’m sorry.” Whesker stood, placing his head and shoulders out of frame, and tore off the microphone attached to his dress uniform.

The colonel’s feed disappeared. Jacquie and her background filled the screen again, surrounded by scrolling tickers. Her expression continued to vacillate until the newsreader regained her professional cool.

“Well, that was Colonel Michael Whesker, obviously drawn away on-,”

Jacquie hesitated again. Much like Whesker, her attention was diverted to something off the screen. Her eyes widened, horror crossing her features until she managed to mask her emotions again. Over several seconds, she composed herself before continuing.

“Apologies, but we have just received some rather shocking news. We are getting confirmed reports of the first dragon attack on the mainland United States. This is a developing situation, it is happening right now, but we’ve received a recording that confirms the-, the, situation. Just a warning, we haven’t had time to fully vet this footage but it is-, it’s contents may be shocking.”

The screen vanished except for the one red ticker along the bottom of the scream. Its headlines quickly changed to read ‘DRAGON ATTACK REPORTED IN LOS ANGELES – FIRST ON US MAINLAND’. The footage that filled the screen above was clearly shot from a helicopter. Shaky, with bits of the aircraft’s interior slipping in and out of the edges of frame, it showed the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles below along with the towering skyline of its downtown area. A huge green shape soared between the buildings.

“Oh, Jesus, Jesus,” a voice behind the camera said.

The camera struggled for scale but based on the skyscrapers around it, the dragon was roughly the size of a 747 but with an even greater wingspan. Two tremendous horns, twisted into arrangements that looked like antlers or branches, rose above its massive head. Its scales were a dark, reflective green and looked like stone, jade, and complex symbols were inscribed on its body and wings. Unlike the golden dragon, the first of their kind that Whesker had killed five years earlier, the etchings on the jade dragon resembled an archaic form of Chinese characters.

Fire gusted out of the jade dragon’s mouth, a solid stream with hurricane force. The flames carved through one, two, three stories of one of the massive glass and steel skyscrapers, blowing right through one side of the building and exiting the other side. Burning wreckage, papers, furniture, and people, was blasted through the windows and fell, smoking, to the street. Such scenes were common now in the Middle East, parts of Asia, Russia, and were even beginning to encroach into Europe, but seeing it happen in Los Angeles still had the power to shock.

The helicopter continued to circle, capturing the carnage as the dragon’s fire raked up and down the building. They pushed their luck too far, and the dragon fixed its attention on them. Enormous, green wings beating, it powered suddenly toward the helicopter. Whoever was behind the camera screamed. The chopper banked sideways but it was too slow, far too slow. In the last seconds of footage, a huge mouth, lined with fangs the size of swords, back of its throat glowing, closed in on the camera before everything went black.

======

Sean: Phew, I’m exhausted on this one. A big part of DRACTOBERFEST was giving myself a little additional challenge, since I’ve been steadily putting out a story each week no problem. I had three of the five stories already drafted but I had to push myself to get the last two, or especially this last one, written, edited, and ready. But honestly I’m pretty happy with the result!

I’m also happy to say that I now have enough stories at least drafted to see out the rest of the year! In fact, I have more than enough, I have some extra stories as well! So I know what will be coming out when, I know what my last two stories will be, and I’ll even have a few to release next year.

However, I don’t know how it is for the other authors out there but I do find myself in that slightly frenetic period between projects right now. I drive myself to write a certain amount every day, it’s how I can keep up with releasing a story every week, and I still have a lot of typing (all my first drafts are handwritten) and editing to do – but I feel the need to write, write, write. This is the way I feel every time I finish a novel, I bounce between different ideas until one latches on. All There in the (Monster) Manual has been the one latched to me since late November of last year, so I need to figure out my next one! Fortunately, I do have a couple of ideas…

Back to regularly scheduled programming next week, make sure to keep your eyes on the website for updates and you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit for more news!

Next Week’s Inspiration: Gorgon

2 thoughts on “Burn

  1. This is one of the best yet. I am still amazed how you are able to consistently build new worlds and stories week after week. And am a little disappointed to know that these weekly stories will be coming to an end soon.

    • Thank you! Wow, that really does mean a lot, believe me, really appreciate hearing that. Building new worlds has been my favourite part of the short stories this year, I always love stories in books and movies where it does feel like there’s more going on than just what’s in the pages and that the story does go on. Promise that, although I’ll take a bit of a break come the new year there will be more in 2023 – just trying to figure out how much!

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