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Authors: Christopher Pike

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BOOK: The Hidden Beast
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“Perhaps we can reason with her,” Bryce said. “Dragons are supposed to be very intelligent.”

“Says who?” Sally said. “Who do you know who's ever talked to a dragon?”

“I've read books on the subject,” Bryce said impatiently.

“Talk to her then,” Adam said. “Just don't get yourself killed.”

Bryce glanced at the burning cave entrance. “I can't just walk out there and talk to her.”

“Coward,” Sally said.

“He's not a coward,” Adam said in Bryce's defense. “I meant he should try to talk to her from inside here. Look, I'll try. I'll call out to her. Dragons are supposed to have good hearing.”

“And where did you learn that?” Sally demanded.

“I think Watch told me,” Adam said.

“He was the one who gave me books on dragons,” Bryce said.

“Hello!” Adam shouted through the flames that covered the cave entrance. “We don't have your crystals!”

The dragon ceased swooping by.

They thought they heard her land.

A moment later the most incredible face they had ever seen peered in through the cave entrance. Besides her incredible green eyes, she had magnificent scales, which seemed to sparkle like polished metal. The color of her hide changed in the shifting sunlight. Fortunately she was much
too large to enter the cave. Yet she fastened them with her green eyes before speaking, and they felt as if a large portion of the dragon's will had walked right up to them and knocked them on the head. Adam had to force himself not to look directly at the beast.

“My name is Slatron,” the dragon said in a bewitching voice. “I have already spoken to your friends, Watch and Cindy. They say your friend Leah has stolen my crystals.”

“That was nice of them,” Bryce muttered sarcastically.

“That's true,” Sally piped up. “She's the thief. How are Watch and Cindy doing by the way, Mrs. Slatron?”

“It is
Ms.
Slatron,” the dragon replied. “Your friends are my prisoners, and if you don't tell me what I want to know, I will have them for dinner.”

“You mean you will have them over for dinner?” Sally asked hopefully.

“I will eat them alive!” the dragon replied, sharpening her tongue. “You tell me now where this Leah is or you, too, will die!”

“Don't answer,” Bryce said quickly. “She will just kill Leah when she finds her.”

“But she will kill us if we don't answer,” Sally said.

“She's bluffing,” Bryce said. “She can't reach us in here.”

“But she can make it hotter than it is in here,” Adam said. “We can't take a much higher temperature. I think she knows that.”

“We can't just turn Leah over to her,” Bryce said.

“Sure we can,” Sally said.

“Let me try to reason with the dragon,” Adam said, turning back to the cave entrance. Immediately he felt the power of the dragon's eyes again. But he found if he forced himself to keep blinking, he didn't become hypnotized. He spoke in a reasonable tone.

“To be frank, Slatron, we do not know exactly where Leah is. We were looking for her when you showed up. And we will continue looking for her if you let us go. We are as anxious to find the crystals as you are. We have every intention of returning them to you. But we can't help you if
you kill us, or hurt our friends. So why don't we try to work together on this, OK?”

The dragon continued to stare at them.

“I would like to work with you,” Slatron said in a calm voice. “Why don't you step out here right now and we can talk about this partnership? You can lead me to Leah and I will have my crystals back and then I will be able to reward you with gems from my hidden treasure. All will be well. Come out here right now and we can talk.”

“Don't listen to her!” Bryce hissed. “She has a snake's tongue. She is trying to confuse us. She will kill us if we go out there.”

“You can understand that we are reluctant to come out right at this moment,” Adam said to the dragon. “But we do want to help you. Even though we're just kids, we're very resourceful. We have saved whole civilizations from ruin. Hey, I have an idea. Why don't you return to your underground chamber for the time being and we'll return there in the next few hours with a progress report? We're sure to find Leah soon enough.”

“No!” the dragon roared. “You will take me to her now!”

“We told you,” Bryce said impatiently. “We don't know where she is.”

“I know where she is!” the dragon yelled. “She has gone to Spooksville! I now know of this famous town. It lies by the ocean, and it is there I will go now! And it is there many will die until my crystals are returned!”

To show that she was not kidding, the dragon showered them with fire. Even though the flames did not reach the gang, the increase in temperature was intolerable to them. Adam felt as if he had been thrown onto a frying pan. Sweat no longer dripped from his face. He was past that stage. It was as if all the liquid had evaporated from his system, and he felt himself passing out.

It was Sally who saved them.

Sally still had her backpack. Adam and Bryce had left theirs behind to lighten their load so they could move faster. But Sally had been unwilling to part with her equipment—it cost too much, she had said—and now they realized it was a good thing. Her tent was coated with a thin layer of aluminumlike substance that was
perfect for deflecting the summer heat—and bad dragon breath. As the boys swooned under the unceasing blast from Slatron's flames, Sally had the wits to rip open her pack and throw the tent over the three of them.

Immediately the temperature seemed to fall. Yet it took almost a minute before the dragon ceased her attack. She howled at them bitterly because she realized she was not going to be able to kill them as she had intended. The flames ceased and they were able to peek over the edge of the protective tent.

“I will come back for you when I have cooked Leah!” Slatron promised. “When I have destroyed all that you know, I will return for you and make you pay for what you have done to me and my family!”

“Wait!” Adam cried as the dragon turned to fly away.

Sally poked him in the side.

“Let the stupid dragon go,” she said. “I am hot enough as it is.”

“But we need to talk to her,” Adam complained, uselessly. The dragon had already turned and flown off into the air.

“I hope Leah has already reached the truck,” Bryce muttered.

“I don't know if her truck can outrun a dragon,” Sally said.

“You would like that, wouldn't you?” Bryce said bitterly. “To see her killed for making a simple mistake.”

Sally spoke patiently. “No, I do not want the dragon to kill Leah. Half of what I say I say because I get annoyed. My annoyance is the result of my biochemistry and I'm not personally responsible for it. Anyway, I hope she's reached the truck by now. I'd never wish an early death on anyone, particularly a good-looking teenager. But the truth of the matter is I am more concerned about what this dragon will do to Spooksville. Thousands might die because of what Leah has done.”

“That's the reason we have to stop this dragon,” Adam said. “Let's assume Leah does get to the truck. How can we stop her from leaving this area with the crystals?”

“I don't know how to stop her,” Bryce said. “But at least I know how to contact her. Leah has her own cell phone and took it with her in
the truck. I have another cell phone in some supplies I buried not far from here.”

“Why do you have supplies buried way the heck up here?” Sally wanted to know.

“Because I am constantly battling forces of evil and need supplies at a moment's notice,” Bryce explained.

“Oh,” Sally said. “That makes good sense.”

“How far are your supplies from here?” Adam asked.

“A half mile,” Bryce said. “They're buried close to a narrow river that runs out of the mountains. I have a raft buried as well. If we can inflate it and ride the river out of here, we might be able to get back to Spooksville before the dragon. Let's hope Cindy and Watch wouldn't have told her precisely where it is located. Even though the dragon can fly, she will still have to search for the city.”

“Why do you have a raft buried with your supplies?” Sally wanted to know.

“Because I can't swim,” Bryce said.

Sally laughed. “You can save the world but you can't swim? I love it, really, that's amazing. You are a superhero, no question about it.”

“Enough,” Adam said. “Let's get out of here.”

The half mile passed quickly because they ran it. Not only did Bryce have a cell phone and a raft, he had a pump as well. While Adam and Sally worked to inflate the raft, Bryce tried calling his cousin. She answered right away. Apparently she was in the truck and driving back to town without them. Bryce spoke to her in an urgent tone.

“Leah,” he said, “we know you stole the crystals. You have to bring them back.”

There was a long pause. “I didn't take anything.”

“We took the same route you did,” Bryce said. “We entered the treasure chamber. We saw the empty grooves on top of the silver pedestal. You can't lie to us. You have to bring them back.”

“Why should I?” she asked in an annoyed voice.

“Because the creature that was sleeping down there has awakened,” Bryce said. “It's a dragon and she's looking for you. She's in the sky not far from where we are, but she moves fast and knows your name.”

There was another pause. “I don't believe it. There are no dragons.”

“You know I wouldn't lie to you,” Bryce said. “But I am hurt that you lied to all of us. Why did you do it? Why did you run off without us?”

Leah spoke with emotion, with deep pain.

“Because the treasure is mine. Father gave it to me. And it's all that I have left in the world now that he's dead.”

Bryce replied gently. “Then why did you show us the map at all? It's obvious to us now that you understood the clues all along.”

“I didn't know how to reach the Teeth.”

“You could have figured it out, asked around. Tell me the real reason, Leah?”

She considered. On the other end of the line, she could have been biting her lip. “I was afraid,” she said finally. “I thought I needed your help. But when I saw the peak standing there so close, last night, I thought I could do it by myself. And I did, Bryce. I brought out half of the greatest treasure the place had to offer.”

“But you don't even know what you've got,” Bryce said into the phone. “None of us does.”

“The map said the crystals are magical, and I
believe it. I just have to figure out how to use them.”

“You have to figure out how to survive,” Bryce said. “Look out your window, Leah. The dragon is coming for you.”

There was another long pause.

“I don't see anything, cousin,” Leah replied. “Anyway, I'll hit Coast Highway soon enough. Then nothing can catch me.” She paused. “I'm sorry, Bryce. You're a good kid. I didn't want to hurt you.”

“You're hurting more than me,” Bryce pleaded. “The dragon swore she would torch the town. Thousands could die.”

Leah seemed to sniff.

“Since dad died,” she said, “I have realized one thing. I have to look out for myself first. No one else is going to.”

“Leah,” Bryce said.

His cousin had already hung up.

Sally looked at Bryce with sympathy.

“No luck?” she asked.

Bryce set the phone down. “Let's get this raft in the water.”

9

W
hen Slatron left, Watch told Cindy they had to search the underground chamber once more. But Cindy was afraid to leave the safety of the tunnel.

“The dragon could return at any second,” she said. “At least she can't get to us here.”

“But here is nowhere,” Watch said. “The creature was right—eventually we'll need food and water. But if we find the exit while she's gone, we stand a chance.”

“But the dragon said it was next to impossible to find the way out.”

“Dragons lie. She wants you to feel hopeless.
But if there's an exit down here big enough to let that creature out, then we'll find it. Let's get to it.”

Cindy grabbed his arm. “Are we sure she's gone?”

Watch shared the same concern. “We can't be sure of anything at this point.”

They walked back down the steps, for the third time. Once clear of the tunnel, they stood still and waited for the dragon to strike. But it seemed as if indeed they were alone. Now they had to make a crucial decision. Which way to head?

“I think we should go the other way,” Cindy suggested. “Away from the treasure chamber. Away from where the dragon slept.”

“Good idea,” Watch said. “We need to explore fresh territory.”

At first the way was the same as the other—flat and barren and dark. But then they came to what appeared to be a wide winding road. It spiraled upward and for that reason they believed that they closing in on the exit. But the climbing was difficult. They had not rested properly the night before, and the day had been stressful. They breathed hard as they climbed.

“How are your legs?” Watch asked.

“Tired. Sore.”

“I think we're going to make it.”

“Do you really?” she asked. “Or are you saying that to keep me from breaking down?”

“A little of both.” He added, “I've never seen you break down under pressure.”

She laughed softly. “This town does give you a thick skin. Do you think other kids in any other part of the country go through half of what we do in a typical week?”

“I couldn't imagine it if they do,” Watch said.

An hour later they paused to take a break. They were halfway through their water bottles, which they had once more filled at the dark pool. But climbing was thirsty work. It was while they were resting that they heard a strange sound in front of them.

BOOK: The Hidden Beast
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