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  1. Prologue 13 Years Ago 7:08 PM Liz Liz hated sunsets. And the late September sky was already awash in bruised hues, outlining rows of gnarled apple trees against the slash of dark horizon. She knew most people enjoyed the colorful blurring of day into night, but those same people had clearly never hunted—or been hunted—by dragons before. They were deadliest at dusk, when mottled dragon scales became nearly invisible in the riot of color. Somehow, creatures with wingspans larger than most commercial aircrafts were rendered almost undetectable. Liz was hot beneath her fatigues; sweat pooling at the base of her spine as she lay flat, propped up on her elbows, rifle pressed into her left shoulder. She had orders, like the half dozen other strike teams peppering the ridge overlooking the valley on either side of her. Whatever they were looking for tonight was supposed to be big—big enough to warrant pulling most of her class out of training for a rare demonstration. She blew out a slow, measured breath. “We probably won’t see anything anyway,” Joseph grumbled. Her older brother sounded listless, agitated even. She settled deeper into the shadow of the nearest apple tree, peering through her scope, ignoring the sour smell from rotting apples strewn about her. “You ok?” she asked instead. He sat just a few feet from her, back pressed against some of the large rocks that formed their cover, rifle laying placidly in his lap. His gaze drifted down into the valley too, but he didn’t look happy about it—also unlike him. Joe loved the hunt, and he’d been waiting for an opportunity like this his whole life. But his hazel eyes were faintly glazed with ... boredom? Worry? She was used to him being assured—the oldest, the best of them. Her skin tingled, and she shifted her weight nervously, repositioning her sights. She concentrated on her elbows sinking into the damp earth, the sound of the wind rustling leaves around them, and the steadiness of her own breathing. The orchard trees were getting murkier by the second between the dark and fog that seemed to be drifting in. She frowned. The fog was moving in fast. Too fast. Something snapped to their left, and their bodies simultaneously sharpened with motion. Liz swung her legs around and focused her rifle, wincing as her headset crackled to life in a too-loud gurgle of static. Her hand flew up to her ear to silence the garbled commands struggling to coming through. Static flared painfully, and then the line went dead. “What the—“ She looked back, and paused. Her brother’s face had formed a sort of wordless question, eyes wide and mouth parted slightly. “Joe?” He launched to his feet without a word—and without his gun—bolting through the tangle of branches behind them in a frenzied burst of motion. She didn’t wait. She should have waited. He’d always been faster than her—damn him—but she ran anyway, ducking fruit laden branches and slipping on slick, smushed apple beneath her boots. He wasn’t even trying to be quiet. They were trained to cover ground quickly and quietly, but Joe was crashing through branches and trees. They might as well have been shining a spotlight on their location. It didn’t make any sense, and the full realization of what that meant slammed into her as she rounded the trunk of a particularly large tree and barreled right into Joe’s broad back. Siren Song. Her brother was standing in the middle of a small clearing, face turned skyward, gaze cloudy. They’d always been decently matched for height and strength, but even as she threw both arms around him and shoved him towards the treeline, he scrambled away from her. “I’m here,” Joe shouted upward, the fog curling around them. “I’m sorry,” he said, but not to her. She tried to wrestle him towards cover, ignoring panic sluicing through her at the noise, at Joe’s Siren-addled brain, at the way the orchard seemed to writhe and breathe around them with every sound they made. “Don’t listen to them—Joe, it’s a Siren Song.” Only one kind of creature sent out a Siren Song, robbing you of reason right before the kill. She raised the butt of her rifle, prepared to knock him out if it meant saving him—but then he was looking at her, eyes clear and confused. “Liz?” he asked hoarsely. She opened her mouth to respond, but never got the chance. Pain exploded above her knee as something big and sharp pierced her leg. Her vision went white – shit, shit, SHIT as she hit the ground hard and felt a sudden warmth saturating her pant leg. And she was bleeding …. dragging … dying … against pebbles and something was pulling her towards the trees. She writhed and clawed at exposed roots but she couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t catch hold of anything as her nails split and fingertips muddled, couldn’t wriggle around to see what had a hold of her, even though she knew—she knew. Blood streamed down her thigh and pooled at her stomach, fire streaking through her veins, as she managed to finally stare into the face of a dragon too large to have crept up silently behind her. But there he was, his dark snout streaked with her blood and his toothy grin clamped firmly around her thigh. Green eyes the size of saucers gleamed in the coming dark. He hoisted her up several feet into the air before she even had a moment to draw a dizzy breath, acid burning in her throat. She’d dropped her gun. She reached weakly for the Dragonsbreath grenade attached to her belt. She looked down the nose of a grinning marbled grey and black dragon, whose pointed snout and hand-sized teeth were sunk firmly into her leg as he beat his powerful wings and rose into the air. Class 3. Young Male. He rumbled in his throat, but he hadn’t roasted her, which either meant he couldn’t manage a strong enough flame to reignite his sparks so quickly, or he didn’t want her dead … yet. She groaned as she tried to reach up and beat at his nose, gasping as his bite tightened, blurring her vision. She was going to throw up. This was all wrong. Her brain still rattled off the stats anyway: Wingspan 30 feet. Controls weather patterns. And, in a moment of blinding clarity, she realized: you’re too small. You’re not the dragon we’re looking for. The dragon rumbled again, in a gurgle that almost sounded like laughter. She hung five feet off the ground—ten—as her reaching fingers finally closing around the Dragonsbreath. Her hands shook as she met the Class 3’s glare—her fingers slick with her own blood as she yanked it free and pulled the pin. Green eyes narrowed. “Boom.” she hissed. All of her was screaming—burning—as she wrenched her arm back and hurled it towards his stupid grinning face. B O O M. She hit the ground hard, gasping. She could hear the furious roar of the Class 3 overhead, watched as the Dragonsbreath’s green fire climbed up the side of his maw, the acid burning through scale and bone as it raced up snout to spine. She watched until he drifted out of focus, the glow of the green fire illuminating the frantic beating of his wings as he tried to escape the flames. Breathtaking. She just watched the dragon burn, his agonized screeching splitting the night. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever heard. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see straight. She lay gasping, aching everywhere—her ears ringing. She blinked once, twice, trying to clear her head as the Class 3 drifted hazily out of focus. Her limbs were leaden, and her hazy vision was abruptly replaced by the alarmed face of her brother. “Liz? Liz?” His dark hair was askew, eyes wet and wide. She’d never seen him cry. His hand was heavy on her thigh, pinching and tearing; his face tightened in horror, “Your leg—” She didn’t know specifics: specifically where she was hurt, specifically where fire coursed through her, specifically where residual Dragonsbreath acid was eating through her own clothing. Everywhere was pain and fire—acid and burning nausea building in her chest, and she would be sick ... she would be sick and— He pressed a finger to his mic, calling for help that roared to dullness in her ears. She wouldn’t be conscious for long. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, to her this time, yes. She tried to grasp the hand that had wrapped around her own, his fingers tightening. Joseph was screaming again for help, for backup, for anybody, and then there was another shattering roar, one she felt as much as heard through her entire body. But it didn’t matter. Joseph never even saw it coming. In one snap of too-large teeth, his entire torso disappeared in a maw that emerged from the fog and engulfed. Dragon saliva hissed as it sprayed the ground. Teeth the length of her forearm, three times bigger than the Class 3’s, missing her by inches. Its immeasurable form darkened the too-bright sky—incomprehensible. Impossible. No matter how much she tried after, she couldn’t recall what happened after. Did she reach for him? For her gun? Her radio? Did she scream? She must have screamed. Did she just lay there and wait to die? She wished she knew. Would it make a difference if she knew? All she could recall was how her brother’s legs had dangled as they drifted, almost lazily, before disappearing into a muddied swirl of a sherbet-colored sky. She didn’t remember the moment when he ceased to be. She couldn’t seem to forget when she realized he was gone.
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