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Authors: Joshua McCune

Talker 25

BOOK: Talker 25
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UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

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Advance Reader’s e-proof

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HarperCollins Publishers

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UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

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THESE ARE UNCORRECTED ADVANCE PROOFS.

Please check any quotations or attributions against the bound copy of this book. We urge this for the sake of editorial accuracy as well as for your legal protection and ours.

UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

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UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

HarperCollins Publishers

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DEDICATION

DEDICATION TK

CONTENTS

Cover

Disclaimer

Title

Dedication

Part I: Kissing Dragons

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Part II: Reconditioning

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

About the Author

Credit

Copyright

About the Publisher

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PART I
KISSING DRAGONS

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1

When
Trish called and begged me to go dragon hunting, I should have trusted my instincts. Now I’m stuck in a car with her and a pair of wannabe farmboys whose idea of Friday night fun is sneaking onto the rez to get their pictures taken next to Old Man Blue.

While she’s riding shotgun, laughing at Konrad Kline’s lame jokes about tonguing lizards, I’m crammed in the back with Preston Williams, a self-proclaimed dragonologer with greasy black hair, clumps of facial fuzz on his cheeks, and beady brown eyes that too often find their way to my neckline.

Konrad steers his BMW to the side of the road and parks next to the cornfield that adjoins the rez. He and Trish walk a few yards ahead of us, their flashlights making zigzags in
the darkness, the soft crunch of trampled corn mingling with their whispers. Preston chirps in my ear about his favorite band—Loki’s Grunts—or maybe it’s a band he’s forming. I stop listening, but nod and smile as my gaze drifts skyward.

A glittering blanket of stars covers us. I won’t miss much about Kansas when I leave for college, but I’ll miss this. The nights are planetarium black here, and when I’m by myself, deathly peaceful.

As always, staring into that vastness of space makes me think of Mom. Not burned and screaming, like in those last minutes before she slipped into a coma, but in a transcendent way, like maybe she’s watching over me. What does she think of me? She’d want me to be nicer to the farmboys, I bet. She’d want me to forgive the dragons—

“Watch out.” Preston grabs my wrist and jerks me back. My focus snaps from the stars to the forearm-thick barbed wire a foot in front of me.

“Better pay attention, Callahan, we’re entering enemy territory.” He sets his hand at his waist and grins. “Piles of crap this high. Doesn’t smell much, but man, it will stain your clothes something fierce.”

After crossing over, we follow Trish and Konrad across flattened pasture toward Dragon Hill. The massive mound of rock and dirt is nothing but a shadow across the horizon, the blue light atop it another star in the heavens.

Except for Old Man Blue, the dragons are out of sight. But I can still feel their eyes on me. Neither hostile nor friendly. Neither angry nor afraid. Just there, watching. Like I’m the one who is trapped and under examination.

I’ve felt this before, the few times I’ve been in the car when Dad’s needed to stop by the rez to check on a patient—his term, not mine. I know these Blues aren’t dangerous. Not usually, anyway.

Konrad calls us together near Dragon Hole. “Rule one of the hunt: never wake a sleeping dragon. Luckily, that’s not something we’ll have to worry about.” He points his flashlight at the blue glow atop the adjoining hill. “Brightest one in the bunch, but nobody’s ever seen the old man awake. Each day the other Blues dig their hole. It gets deeper and Dragon Hill gets taller. The old man’s got to get up and climb to his new position at the top, right?”

Trish nods, eyes wide.

“My father figured the same thing,” Konrad says, “so he posted men to monitor the old man at night. Each morning the guards were asleep and the old man had moved up the hill.”

Preston wiggles his fingers at us. “Dragon magic.”

Trish rolls her eyes but leans in closer to Konrad. “What about the rest?”

“Eager for some lizard action, huh?” He takes her hand,
leads her to the edge of the hole.

“Wow,” she says. “How many are there?”

“Two hundred or so.”

Every one of them watching me.

Konrad clasps Trish around the waist and spins her toward Dragon Hill. “You like those, wait until you see one up close.”

Preston waves me over. “You gotta check this out, Callahan. It’s Jedi badass.”

I hesitate, then think of Mom. She believed every decision boils down to two choices, whether it be as simple as yes or no, or as complex as right or wrong. I can stay here in the darkness, afraid of the dragons and everything they represent, or . . .

I glance skyward and offer a silent prayer before shuffling forward.

The closest dragons nestle in caves a dozen yards from the top, their blue bodies sparkling like giant sapphires. A ramp spirals down, caves and dragons on either side. Farther down, blackness swallows the ramp, but the twinkling blue lights continue into the infinity.

Staring into the abyss reminds me how little we know about these creatures. They exploded into our world fifteen years ago, full grown and lethal. Everybody’s got theories, most of them stupid, but nobody knows how they got here.
Just like nobody knows why they’re digging this giant pit in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas. When Army inspectors attempted to investigate, a few months into the excavation, the dragons nearly destroyed the rez and half of Mason-Kline with their thunderous stomping.

But at rest, they’re not scary at all. They’re beautiful.

The dragon luminosity mesmerizes me, and the sensation that they’re watching me dissolves, along with my apprehension. A peacefulness I haven’t felt since Mom’s death creeps over me.

Preston’s nasal laugh ruins it. “Kon thinks they’re searching for treasure,” he says. “Me, I’d put my money on dwarves. Let’s see if the old man will give us his opinion.”

When I look away from the hole, I expect my unease to return, but it doesn’t. Maybe the dragons have seen me and are satisfied now.

Or maybe I’m just crazy.

It’s a hundred feet to the top of Dragon Hill. Made of huge clumps of torn earth, the mound more resembles an irregular landfill than a hill. The ten-minute climb leaves me sweating and out of breath.

Even lying down, Old Man Blue’s taller than a double-decker bus. If his neck were longer, he’d resemble an iridescent blue brontosaurus. It’s the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen, and it’s marred only by the silver fire restrictor
cinched about his neck.

“Time for a smooch,” Preston says. For a horrible moment, I think he’s talking to me.

“How we want to do this?” Konrad asks.

“We’ll make this an easy one for our novices,” Preston says as he pulls out his phone. “Kon, you ride the old man, and we’ll have the ladies kiss him on the cheeks.”

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