By Beka Gremikova
Dawson Malone prided himself on many things—his jawline and tracking abilities most of all. His crowning achievement thus far? Discovering the Merfolk after they’d been believed extinct for centuries.
So when he heard of monsters lurking deep in the Tangauryan jungle, he pounced.
“You don’t want to go in there,” the woman at the market warned him as he bought supplies. “Men who go in never come back out.”
He grunted. “Thankfully I’ve never considered myself one of the many.” He turned his head, showing off his rugged, scarred jaw. “I’ve gotten myself out of every scrape.”
Her white eyebrows rose, and her lips thinned. “And your men?”
He shrugged. “That’s why I travel alone now.” Much better than writing all those letters home to inform the families of his guides’ deaths. It wasn’t his fault these people couldn’t do their jobs properly.
He tossed a bag of coins onto the table. “Thank you for the weapons and the warning, Grandmother.” He hefted a rifle across his back. “I’ll be sure to show you what I find.” He flashed her a grin, but she merely shook her head.
The first few nights in the jungle revealed nothing he hadn’t seen before. He didn’t have much appreciation for skittering lizards or large, vibrant flowers. What he wanted were the monsters.
“Come on,” he muttered into the darkness. “I know you’re out there!”
Then, a few nights later, while roasting a wild boar, he heard the first clue. Branches crashed in the distance, accompanied by low, muttering grunts that sounded too deep to be any creature he’d ever encountered. He crept through the underbrush, following the echoes, and glimpsed a shadow lumbering between the trees.
His breath caught.
Moonlight bounced off the rippling scales and crested forehead of a Tangaursaurus, long thought extinct. It snuffled at a mango tree, tearing fruit from the branches and swallowing them whole.
This was even better than finding the Mer kingdom! Malone grinned, rubbing his jaw. Worth a lot more money to the folks back home.
The creature turned toward him as though to search out more mangoes and stiffened. It charged, a screaming bellow bursting from its throat.
Malone scrambled backwards, realizing belatedly that in his excitement, he’d left his gun back at the campsite. He cursed.
A long, low whistle pierced the air. The dinosaur stopped in its tracks, nostrils flaring. It offered a questioning trumpet, and a sharper whistle responded.
A very human whistle.
The dinosaur ducked its head and trudged back into the shadows.
Malone searched for the source of the whistle but found nothing. He returned to camp, heart thundering. Someone who could command dinosaurs? Forget selling dinosaur bones and scales—this was a power worth searching out.
Two days later, he finally found a straw-roofed hut in the middle of the jungle. A herd of Tangaursaurus grazed in the foliage, paying him no heed as he strode to the open doorway and stuck his head inside. “Hullo?”
A young woman sat at a low table eating mangoes. Long black curls tumbled down her back, and bracelets clinked as she stood, bowing low. “So my dinosaur friend didn’t scare you away?”
He snorted, taking off his hat so she might admire his own curls. “I’m no coward. Besides, I’m intrigued by your way of life.”
“You are, are you?” Her lips twitched. “It’s rather peaceful.” She made a kissing face at a Tangaursaurus that poked its head through one of the large windows. “Just me and my boys.”
“How on earth did you bring them all to heel?” If he discovered her method, how impressive he’d be! A conqueror of fearsome beasts. A master of monsters. No secret on earth could escape him—he’d break into the most tightly sealed tombs, strike fear into the worst tyrant’s heart.
“Ahh, so that’s what you’re interested in.” She laughed, shaking her head, her earrings jangling. “I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised. You are Dawson Malone.”
His heart raced. He leaned against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest to show off his muscles. “You know me.” He shouldn’t have doubted that his reputation could reach even the grimiest hovel.
“You’ve made quite the impression on Tangaur.” She sat back down, gesturing for him to join her. He took in the array of fresh fruits, his mouth watering. “Such that I feel compelled to reveal the secret of my life with these Tangaursaurus.” She smiled at him, full lips curving gracefully.
How could he say no to such an invitation? He had more than one reputation to uphold, after all.
He knelt, reaching for a mango. “So, how do you do it? The communication mumbo jumbo.”
“Oh that.” She drummed her fingers against the table. “Well, you see, they view me as their… master, I suppose. Or their mother? I… hatched them out, in a way.” She sighed dreamily. “I dote on them, and they depend on me.”
He tossed a mango chunk in his mouth and chewed. Sweet, juicy, and something else… an odd, sparkling tartness he couldn’t place. Was this some new kind of mango?
He opened his mouth to ask but found he couldn’t speak. Panic laced his limbs, freezing him in place. The world seemed to grow smaller. His body stretched, his head smashing against the ceiling. Dazed, he shook a head that felt thicker, heavier, like his jaw had grown ten times the size.
His vision blurred. Pain seared his backside, as if new appendages were bursting through his skin.
When the agony finally subsided, he blinked groggily. Everything appeared brighter. He glanced down—and found curved foreclaws.
A low, trumpeting bellow ripped from his throat.
The woman—no, his master now—smiled, hands clasped to her chest. “A beautiful new addition,” she murmured, misty-eyed. She traced his scaled cheek. “Such a lovely crest. Delightfully ferocious claws. Oh, and of course,” she added, “an absolutely exquisite jaw!”