The Dragon's Treasure - S.E. Smith - ebook
Opis

USA Today Bestseller! Seven incredible kingdoms, eight sexy tales of love, angst, and adventure! This contemporary fairy tale series will take you to a world filled with dragons, merpeople, pirates, witches, monsters, Elementals, and a lonely king who desperately needs some hope... Choose your treasure carefully, thief… Drago, King of the Isle of Dragons, is the last of the magnificent dragons of the Seven Kingdoms. Bitter and alone, he abandons the emptiness of his realm and retreats to the caverns beneath the palace. In the form of his dragon, he remains hidden from the world, protecting the Dragon’s Heart, the last legacy of his people – until he is disturbed by a most unlikely thief. Carly Tate’s trip to Yachats State Park takes a turn when she is caught in a sudden storm. Seeking shelter, she stumbles through a magical doorway into a cavern filled with treasure! Yet, as incredible as the piles of glittering gold and jewels are, her gaze is transfixed by the slumbering form of a magnificent dragon. Carly’s appearance begins a series of events that will not only change Drago’s life, but will affect all of the Seven Kingdoms. Can a centuries-old dragon protect his most valuable treasure, or will the evil that destroyed his race take Carly from him as well? Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith presents a new action-packed story full of romance and adventure. Brimming with her signature humor, vivid scenes, and beloved characters, this book is sure to be another fan favorite! Main Content: 158 (6x9) pages, 53,071 words

Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:

Androidzie
iOS
czytnikach certyfikowanych
przez Legimi
Windows
10
Windows
Phone

Liczba stron: 328

Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostepny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacjach Legimi na:

Androidzie
iOS

The Dragon’s Treasure

A Seven Kingdoms Tale 1

S.E. Smith

Contents

Acknowledgments

In the Beginning…

Prologue: The End of the Great Battle

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

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Epilogue

Sample of Gracie's Touch

Additional Books and Information

About the Author

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my husband Steve for believing in me and being proud enough of me to give me the courage to follow my dream. I would also like to give a special thank you to my sister and best friend, Linda, who not only encouraged me to write, but who also read the manuscript. Also to my other friends who believe in me: Julie, Jackie, Christel, Sally, Jolanda, Lisa, Laurelle, Debbie, and Narelle. The girls that keep me going!

And a special thanks to Paul Heitsch, David Brenin, Samantha Cook, Suzanne Elise Freeman, and PJ Ochlan—the awesome voices behind my audiobooks!

—S.E. Smith

Paranormal Romance

The Dragon’s Treasure: Seven Kingdoms Tale 1

Copyright © 2017 by S.E. Smith

First E-Book Published July 2017

Cover Design by Melody Simmons

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the author.

All characters, places, and events in this book are fictitious or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations are strictly coincidental and not intended by the author.

Summary: A young woman seeking shelter from a storm finds herself in a magical realm where dragons live, leading to a series of events that will affect all of the Seven Kingdoms.

ISBN (paperback) 978-1-944125-11-0

ISBN (createspace paperback) 978-1985580442

ISBN: (eBook) 978-1-944125-09-7

Published in the United States by Montana Publishing.

{1. FIC027030 Fantasy Romance

2. FIC009120Fantasy Dragons & Mythical Creatures

3. FIC027120 Paranormal Romance

4. FIC002000 Action/Adventure }

www.montanapublishinghouse.com

Synopsis

USA Today Bestseller!

Seven incredible kingdoms, eight sexy tales of love, angst, and adventure! This contemporary fairy tale series will take you to a world filled with dragons, merpeople, pirates, witches, monsters, Elementals, and a lonely king who desperately needs some hope...

Choose your treasure carefully, thief…

Drago, King of the Isle of Dragons, is the last of the magnificent dragons of the Seven Kingdoms. Bitter and alone, he abandons the emptiness of his realm and retreats to the caverns beneath the palace. In the form of his dragon, he remains hidden from the world, protecting the Dragon’s Heart, the last legacy of his people – until he is disturbed by a most unlikely thief.

Carly Tate’s trip to Yachats State Park takes a turn when she is caught in a sudden storm. Seeking shelter, she stumbles through a magical doorway into a cavern filled with treasure! Yet, as incredible as the piles of glittering gold and jewels are, her gaze is transfixed by the slumbering form of a magnificent dragon.

Carly’s appearance begins a series of events that will not only change Drago’s life, but will affect all of the Seven Kingdoms. Can a centuries-old dragon protect his most valuable treasure, or will the evil that destroyed his race take Carly from him as well?

In the Beginning…

Long, long ago, peace reigned over the Isles of the Seven Kingdoms. Each kingdom: the Isles of the Dragon, Sea Serpent, Magic, Giants, Elements, Pirates, and Monsters were ruled by seven powerful leaders who watched over their realms. Each ruler was given a gift by the Goddess who created their world; a gift that promised harmony among the kingdoms as long as these gifts were kept safe and not used against each other. The rulers were fair and just, and understood their kingdoms needed each other to flourish.

Alas, the peace was not to last. One night a strange and brilliant light fell from the sky and landed in the ocean. Those who saw the meteor streak through the dark skies made lighthearted wishes. One young sea witch saw the falling star and swam out to sea to catch it. She was unaware that something dark and evil lived within its core – a darkness that would slowly overpower her and threaten the very fabric of the Seven Kingdoms.

Prologue: The End of the Great Battle

“Return to the isle, I will join you soon,” Drago ordered.

“Drago, do you think it safe?” Theron asked, glancing across the waves at the man who had emerged from the inky blackness.

Drago released a growl of warning. His second-in-command tilted his wings and fell back, increasing the distance between them. Five dragons, all members of his elite guard, hovered close by. The three males and two females kept a wary eye on the water below them. Even with a dragon’s eyesight, they could see nothing within the growing darkness of the storm clouds around them or through the turbulence of the waves.

“Return now,” Drago ordered.

“Yes, my king,” Theron reluctantly agreed, rising higher and issuing a sharp order to the other guards.

Drago kept his gaze locked on Orion. The Sea King gazed back at him with the same intense expression on his face. The large sea dragon that Orion rode shook its head, feeling the tension between the two men.

“Orion,” Drago growled.

“I come asking for a truce, dragon. You are the last of the kingdoms. The others agreed to peace,” Orion stated.

Drago snorted, small puffs of smoke swirled from his nostrils and blew away in the gathering wind, floating toward Orion. The sea dragon jerked in alarm. A smile of satisfaction curved Drago’s lips when he saw Orion fight for control of the huge sea dragon. The sharp, angry glare Orion shot him told Drago that the Sea King was well aware that he had frightened the sea dragon on purpose.

“What brings on this sudden desire for peace?” Drago asked in a mocking tone.

Orion's mouth tightened in irritation. “It was all lies,” he replied.

“What were lies?” Drago demanded.

“I had no desire for your treasure nor to steal the Dragon’s Heart, Drago. The Isle of the Sea Serpent has its own treasures. We do not need the enchanted gold and jewels of the dragons and I know better than to try to steal the gift of the Goddess,” Orion said.

Drago snapped his teeth. “You claim that, yet I’ve captured your men who swear just the opposite. You also blamed the dragons for scorching your fields above the sea. None of my people attacked your kingdom and still they lie at the bottom of the ocean while their mates and children cry in sorrow,” he retorted.

“I know, but I swear on the Trident that those who you captured are under a curse of dark magic, forced to do deeds they would never have done otherwise. I also swear that it was not my people who struck the dragons from the sky. They… Drago, they lay as statues, turned to stone by a spell I have never seen before,” Orion replied, his voice barely audible above the sound of the wind and waves.

“You swear? Then who did such dark magic? The only ones with such power are those from the Isle of Magic,” Drago demanded.

Orion hesitated and looked out over the sea before returning his gaze to Drago. Drago could see the regret in the other king’s eyes. He could also see the sincerity.

“Nay, it was not the Isle of Magic, it was my cousin Magna,” Orion finally said.

“The Sea Witch?” Drago asked.

“Yes, something has happened to her. I have banished her, but I fear that is not enough. Her magic grows more powerful and must be stopped once and for all. It was her lies and treachery that started the wars between the kingdoms. She cast a spell – there is a darkness within her unlike anything I have ever seen before, Drago. It is unnatural. The more we fight each other, the stronger it grows. The only way to defeat the spell is to work together,” Orion said.

“I sensed the darkness in her when she came to me for asylum. I should have killed her then, but instead gave my word to protect her from you when she said you had gone mad. Know this, Orion, if I find her first, all the water in the ocean and her black magic will not save her from the fire of my dragon,” Drago swore.

“I hope it will not come to that. Do you accept the truce, Drago? I pledge to do everything I can to bring justice for the hideous deeds Magna has done,” Orion said in a solemn tone.

“Yes, Sea King, I have no desire to continue the battle – especially one that fuels the dark magic of the Sea Witch. There has been enough death and destruction. I accept your truce, Sea King, but be warned – the Sea Witch will pay for her treachery if our paths ever cross,” Drago said, tilting his wings so the winds could lift him higher.

“I understand. Go in peace, Dragon King,” Orion replied.

Drago watched Orion pull on the reins of his sea dragon. The beast eagerly turned and dipped its head. Within seconds, all that was visible was the turbulent sea. Lightning flashed, cutting across the sky, followed by the rolling sound of thunder.

Turning, Drago thought about what Orion had said – a truce, the end of the Great Battle. Peace had finally come to the Seven Kingdoms again, but not before there had been great suffering caused by one woman’s greed for power. Rage burned deep inside Drago. He had meant what he’d said to Orion – he would show no mercy to the Sea Witch.

As king of the Isle of the Dragon and ruler over all dragons, it was his duty to keep his people safe. When the Sea Witch had washed up on the shores of the Isle of the Dragon, he had believed her lies. Her body had been shrunken and pale. She had sworn to him that her cousin had gone mad. Her claims that Orion wanted to steal the dragon’s hoard of treasure to finance his bid to take over the Isle of the Dragons had sounded foolish until raiders from the sea were captured. They had all said the same thing.

Next, had come the attacks against the dragons flying to other kingdoms. Many had disappeared, having fallen to their deaths into the deep abyss beneath the ocean that separated each kingdom, including his own parents. The Sea Witch, Magna, had whispered into Drago’s ear that it wouldn’t have happened if only he had the stones of the Trident. If he did, then not only would he control those beneath the waves, he would also have a treasure of unimaginable power.

Drago understood the dangers of controlling an artifact that was not from his realm – to do so could tear the delicate threads of magic holding the Seven Kingdoms together. There was a reason why dragons could not control the trident, just as there was a reason that the people of the sea could not steal the Dragon’s Heart. The sacred stones controlled the very essence of each species – water and fire. Each kingdom had an ancient artifact.

His father had groomed him to always take into consideration the far-reaching consequences of his decisions. What good was it to have such a powerful treasure if the world no longer existed? Magna’s quiet whispers finally became too much and he had threatened to drop her back into the sea and let Orion deal with her if she did not stop. She had disappeared the next day.

With a loud sigh, Drago soared along the water as fast as his wings could carry him. His body rose and fell with the building waves. Storm clouds swirled high above, and the rumble of thunder and the static feel of the electricity building in the atmosphere warned of the severe gale about to strike.

Drago and his guards had been conducting one last patrol of the waters surrounding the island before the storm hit when he had seen Orion. A quick scan of the sky warned him that the squall was likely to turn into a full-fledged cyclone. As if to confirm his thoughts, icy spears of driving rain began to fall in thick, blinding sheets.

Drago was several kilometers away when he heard the first cry for help from his people. Confusion swept through him when more and more cries of terror rang out. Fighting against the savage winds, an uncharacteristic fear drove him onward, pushing him at a reckless pace to reach his home. The fear wasn’t for himself, but for his people.

The anguished cries of his people resonated inside his head. His confusion grew when the sounds of their piercing screams suddenly began to fade.

Drago’s blood boiled inside him. He snapped his tail like a whip, shattering the sound barrier with its speed, and the crack echoed through the air like lightning. He had been betrayed – but, not by Orion. Something else was attacking his people – something alien to their world.

The cries of the other dragons pierced his soul, making his struggle to reach them seem painfully ineffective. As each voice grew silent, a sense of panic began to wash over him. When there was nothing but a black void where his connection to the other dragons had once been, the panic engulfed him completely.

“No!” Drago roared out, spying the Isle of the Dragon through the rain.

In the distance, he could see a figure on the rocky cliff turning to look at him in triumph – the Sea Witch! Her black hair swirled around her pale form. Dark threads of sorcery radiated outward from her fingers. Drago saw Theron and two other members of his elite guard flying toward her. The dark threads pierced them. Drago watched in disbelief as their bodies stiffened, turning to stone. As if in slow motion, each dragon fell from the sky. Two of the dragons tumbled into the sea and disappeared beneath the waves. Theron’s form crashed to the ground, tumbling over before coming to a standstill – the fire from his dragon frozen for eternity just centimeters from the Sea Witch.

“They are gone, Drago. You are all alone. Give me the Dragon’s Heart and I will give you back your weak, pathetic people,” the Sea Witch whispered, her words carried to him on the wind by magic.

“Never! Die, Witch!” Drago roared.

“I will have it when you are gone. A dragon cannot survive alone for long. Not even your precious treasure will keep you alive,” she retorted with a mocking smile.

Infuriated, Drago released a powerful ball of white dragon fire. The Sea Witch’s mad laughter rose above the sound of the storm as she dove from the cliff into the waves below, disappearing into the dark depths surrounding the island. The dragon fire exploded against the cliff, sending an avalanche of super-heated rock into the sea below and scorching Theron’s frozen form.

Drago scanned the edges of the cliffs. The still figures of his people stared back at him. Their faces forever etched in expressions of horror. All Drago could see was his failure to protect them.

He glided over the edge of the cliff. His powerful wings folded and he dropped down next to Theron and shifted to his two-legged form. He raised a trembling hand to touch his friend and comrade. Grief unlike anything he had ever known surged through him, encasing his heart as if in the same stone that had transformed his people. Tilting his head back, Drago released a roar of rage that spread across the Seven Kingdoms. Each ruler sensed the void and knew that while the Great Battle between them was over, a far deadlier war was about to begin. Fear reached out, wrapping its greedy hands around the hearts and souls of the other inhabitants, then the world stilled when the sound of Drago’s roar faded to a deafening silence.

Several days later, Drago stepped back to survey his work. He had all of his people that he could find inside their homes to protect them from the elements. Those that lived and worked in the castle, he had moved to inside the great hall.

He turned his gaze to the figure nearest him. Theron stared back at him. He raised his hand and ran it over the black streak along the side of the dragon’s neck in remorse.

He paused and closed his eyes as the familiar, agonizing shaft of pain ripped through him again. For a moment, he wished it was powerful enough to strike him dead. The pain, emptiness, and feelings of helplessness and remorse were almost more than he could endure.

All of his attempts to locate the Sea Witch through magic had been fruitless. It was as if she no longer existed. Without knowing how she was able to transform his people to stone, there was no way of reversing it. There was nothing else that could be done. Not even the Dragon’s Heart had the power to break such a spell – he knew because he had tried to use it. Drawing in a deep breath, he opened his eyes and stiffened his shoulders in determination. One day, the Sea Witch would resurface and when she did, he would be ready. Until then, he would protect those that could not protect themselves.

Drago turned and walked through the doorway of the great hall, shutting the massive doors behind him. He uttered a spell to lock the doors of the room before striding through the double doors leading outside. With a whisper, he cast a spell to enchant the castle. He would do the same for the entire Isle of the Dragon. No one would be able to set foot on the island – not even those of the magical realm. It was a spell no others knew. Those unlucky enough to make their way to the shores would perish, trapped between the high cliffs and the water.

Shifting, he launched himself up into the air. He circled the isle five times, re-enforcing the spell until the mists grew thick and heavy. Only when he was satisfied did he return to the castle. Landing on the top tower, he scanned the isle one last time. This would be the last time he would see it.

Drago blinked and turned his gaze to the ground. Pushing off of the turret, he swept downward. A moment before he impacted with the hard surface of the courtyard, the ground opened and he disappeared inside. The chasm was nearly thirty meters deep and as he shot through, the opening sealed behind him. He curved his body, swooping down the elaborate stone staircases and through the arched doorways to the massive cavern below. In the deepest chamber, he swept over the sea of treasure until he landed on a mountain of gold coins and jewels. His body slid down the avalanche of treasure to where a large platform towered.

Drago stepped up the stairs to the top. With a swipe of his tail, he brushed off the coins and jewels that had fallen onto the stone platform before turning in a circle and lying down. His gaze swept over the immense wealth of the dragons. In the distance, he could see the replicas of his father and mother. They had been the first to disappear, shortly before the Great Battle had begun. They had traveled to the Isle of the Monsters to see Nali. Their loss had hit him and the other dragons hard.

“I let you down, Father, but I will not give up,” Drago vowed, gazing at the statue of his sire. “I have nothing left to protect but the Dragon’s Heart that you hold. I will guard it until the very end.”

Drago lowered his head, closed his eyes in grief, and as the silence grew, began the task of guarding the treasure of his people. Soon, hours passed into days, and days passed into weeks. The weeks blended into years, and the years faded into the chasm of emptiness that grew inside Drago. He eventually grew tired, sleeping more as his loneliness and the magic he needed to use to keep his body strong began to take its toll on him. He briefly woke when a slight disturbance shook the isle. The ground trembled beneath him, but he did not sense another’s presence and he soon fell back to sleep.

The Dragon’s Heart glowed brightly, shimmering as if the Goddess was aware that the last of the dragons was in danger of perishing. Drago was unaware of the huge blood-red diamond rising from its resting place between the claws of his father’s statue. Lost in the realm of his dreams, he slept as a nearby passage slowly opened to another world.

Chapter 1

Carly Tate hummed to the music playing on the radio as she slowed to a stop at the front entrance to Yachats State Park. Today was the day! She was taking control of her life. In reality, today was actually the third day of ‘Today was the Day’. She was going to start exercising, lose some weight, focus on getting a better job, and perhaps even think about moving out of Yachats, Oregon. Heck, she might even consider moving to Portland or Seattle.

“One baby step at a time,” she said out loud, repeating her new mantra.

She just needed to concentrate on staying focused, which was not something that she was especially good at. Luckily, her roommate and best friend, since forever, loved her just the way she was – most of the time. Poor Jenny had the best shoulders to cry on, and only went a little nuts when Carly went to pieces after she chose to date the wrong kind of guys – like Ross Galloway.

“How many?” the ranger asked in a slightly bored tone.

“Just me,” Carly replied, handing him her state park pass.

“Be careful along the trails; it looks like we have a storm coming. Park closes at sunset. Please park in designated areas only and don’t feed any wildlife,” the ranger said, handing back her pass, along with a map, and the parking pass for her car dash.

“Thank you,” Carly responded.

She decided it was probably best not to tell the ranger that they had had this same conversation the last three days in a row. This would make her fourth trip in as many days. She now had a nice stack of maps littering her passenger seat.

Accelerating, she followed the winding road. The same old feelings started to choke her the farther she drove. She reached over and turned up the music just as she had done for the last three days, hoping it would kick her adrenaline into gear and not her imagination.

Tall redwoods and other evergreens lined the narrow, winding road. Green moss grew on the rocks, making them slippery, and lush ferns rose up past her hips. Carly knew exactly how slippery the moss was and how high the ferns were because yesterday when she’d reached the top of the path, she had stepped up on a rock for a “Rocky movie moment” and had promptly – and very inelegantly – landed on her ass in the middle of some ferns.

Carly was not a graceful athlete. In fact, just using the word athlete and her name in the same sentence was enough to qualify to go on the Comedy Central Standup Comedian circuit. She had decided the day before that she had a better chance of becoming a mega-star comedian than she did losing the weight she wanted and hiking the full length of the trail without killing herself in the process. Still, she had sworn to Jenny – her very athletic best friend – that she was going to do this even if it killed her.

“Unfortunately, it just might,” Carly muttered when she shifted in the driver’s seat of her dark red Ford Focus and felt the bruises and protesting muscles from her fall the day before.

She was still muttering under her breath when she pulled into the parking spot near the entrance to a hiking trail and turned off the ignition. She hadn’t tried this trail yet. Picking up one of the maps from the pile, she glanced at it and wrinkled her nose before releasing a low groan.

“Four miles,” she moaned, leaning her forehead against the steering wheel. “You can do this, Carly. It’s only four miles. It will be a walk in the park.” A snort escaped her at the pun. “Okay, you do this and you can treat yourself to a small ice cream at the Dairy Queen on the way home, how’s that for a reward?”

Leaning back in the seat, she bent over and picked up the small backpack from the floorboard and shoved the map inside. Opening the door, she slid out with another loud groan before glancing around to make sure no one else could see or hear her. She turned, slammed the door shut, and pocketed her car keys.

“Ice cream. Remember the ice cream,” she mumbled under her breath as she forced her aching muscles into motion.

She stepped onto the trail and pulled the denim and leather backpack onto her shoulders. Gripping the straps, she started down the uneven path. “Ice cream…” she muttered with each of the first two hundred and seventy-one steps before she started focusing on other more important things – like hungry bears, mountain lions, and Big Foot.

Nearly two and a half miles later and barely half way into her hike, Carly was in a foul temper. She had fallen – again – when the large iced coffee she’d drunk earlier flooded her bladder and made stopping for a pit stop an urgent priority. Since there were no restrooms along the trail, she had been forced to find a bush to water.

Of course, there was no flat ground to be found. The only options available were a rock wall to climb up or a steep slope to climb down. Her protesting muscles and lack of coordination, plus the fact there was nothing to hide behind if she climbed up, meant she was left with no alternative but to navigate the steep drop off. She had made it but not without a few slips and slides. The seat of her jeans and her knees were covered in damp, cold mud which added to the misery of her aching body.

Fortunately, she had discovered a small stream of water coming out of the rocks a little further up the trail to clean up a little. The icy water had given her an opportunity to wash the dirt off of her hands and refresh herself. Of course, now her fingers were frozen.

Think positive, Carly. At least you’re not still completely filthy, she thought ruefully as she continued to trudge up the trail.

Carly couldn’t help but think that if all of her earlier misadventures hadn’t been enough to convince her that she should have just gone to the gym, the unpredictable Oregon weather should have been the final decision maker. The dropping temperature and the rolling, thick clouds told her that she was an idiot for being a miser and letting her embarrassment get the best of her. Those two concerns had kept her from going to the local gym – money and Ross – and not necessarily in that order.

She had been reluctant to purchase the annual membership until she knew she was going to stick with her exercise plan. She had bought the membership once a couple of years ago – and never went. Of course, she was older and more mature now which should have meant she was more disciplined – only Carly knew herself well enough when it came to exercise to know that she wasn’t. If she had thought more about it, she should have just purchased the monthly contract, but it would have cost her five dollars more each month, which in a year would have been a whopping sixty dollars more than the yearly membership.

The real reason she didn’t go to the gym, though, was because of her reluctance to run into Ross Galloway. Ross put the bad in ‘bad boy’. Jenny had warned her, but Carly had been all goo-goo eyed when Ross had shown up in his faded jeans, ratty t-shirt, black leather jacket, and his devil-may-care attitude down at the local bar near the waterfront. She really knew better than to date a guy she met at the bar. She had known better than to date Ross Galloway – hell, he had been bad in high school! Still, she had been feeling pretty mellow after her first beer when he had asked her out – not something that happened all that often. He also went to the gym – the only one in town.

By the fourth date, Carly had realized her mistake and called Jenny to come pick her up. Granted, it hadn’t all been Ross’s fault. She hadn’t meant to release the fishing net on his boat. It had been an accident. Also, he had been the one who had wanted a smoke! It wasn’t like she had dropped the match on purpose. You’d think if the guy owned a boat, he’d know if there were flammable items on board.

Carly looked up when a fat raindrop landed on her cheek. Almost in tears, she focused on the trail in front of her when another drop hit her on the end of her nose. Lightning flashed across the sky, followed by an earth-shaking roll of thunder.

“Really? You think I’m enjoying this so much you wanted to add to the fun? You could have waited, you know. I’m almost half way back. Just another hour… or two,” Carly argued with the sky. She was rewarded with three more large drops and a heavy mist approaching at a rapid clip. “Great! Thank you so very much… not! I hope you are having fun because I have to tell you that this really sucks big time. I HATE EXERCISING!”

Of course, arguing with the sky wasn’t something most sane people did, but it made Carly feel a little bit better. She cringed when a bolt of lightning struck close enough that she thought her hair was standing on end. Okay, maybe the sky gods were listening and they were not entertained by her yelling at them.

Picking up speed, Carly tried to half walk, half jog along the uneven trail. She smothered a cry when another bolt of lightning struck. Didn’t the weather know that it was just supposed to rain, not have a full-fledged electrical storm? She should have checked the weather forecast before she got out of her car.

“Shouldn’t the ranger have insisted that no one go hiking? He frigging knew there was a storm coming. Isn’t it his duty to help protect idiots like me from themselves?” Carly cursed under her breath.

She jolted to a stop when a small group of rocks tumbled onto the trail ahead of her. Then the rain started coming down in thicker sheets, drenching her. She pulled the hood of her jacket up over her head, cursing again when it caught on her backpack. She needed to find a safe place to weather the storm. A loud cracking sound made her look up. Her eyes widened in horror when she saw a leaning tree sway dangerously toward her. Small rocks rained down around her, hitting her shoulders.

Carly jumped closer to the rock face and was surprised when she noticed a dark crevice running vertically from the ground to almost a half meter over her head that appeared to be a very narrow entrance to a cave. Perhaps her luck was changing. It might not be the local hotel, but it was better than getting struck by lightning or crushed by falling trees and rocks.

Carly squeezed into the narrow crack in the rock face and released a frustrated groan. Why couldn’t the stupid opening be just a few centimeters wider? It wasn't until she was halfway in the crevice that the sudden image of horrible, scary bugs flared in her mind. She really hoped there weren’t any spiders, snakes, or other creepy crawly things in the dark recesses.

A flash of lightning and the crackle in the air had her frantically sucking in her stomach so she could slip inside. Of course, she became stuck. Wiggling back and forth, she added a few loud curses to go with the new bruises she was adding to her collection before she popped through the opening into inky blackness.

She turned and grabbed a branch just outside the opening; then wildly waved the damp branch around, hoping against hope that it was enough to chase off any of the nasty gremlins and their sticky webs that might be lurking near the entrance. The rain picked up even more, pouring down the side of the mountain until the entrance looked more like the back of a waterfall. Carly hiccupped in the dark.

“This is why I hate to exercise,” she groaned with a shiver.

Turning away from the wall of water, she absently waved the branch with her left hand while she reached for her cell phone with her right. She tried sliding it to unlock the screen and cursed loudly when it didn’t work. She slid the thin branch between her dirty, jean-clad knees and used her right index finger to open the flashlight option on her cell phone. Slowly shining the light along the walls and floor, she looked around the narrow cave.

“I told Jenny this would be the death of me. Archaeologists are going to find my mummified body a thousand years from now and say ‘Yep, this is a perfect example of Darwin in action’,” she muttered in her best ‘learned scientist’ voice. She stared at the walls with growing dread, certain that she could see them moving with all kinds of deadly bugs determined to suck her dry. “Forget being mummified. I’m going to be picked clean to the bone!” She took a breath, then her lips quirked up. “I guess that is one way to lose some weight.”

Jenny Ackerly, her best friend and roommate, had laughed earlier this morning when Carly had dramatically foretold her own death by exercise. Well, Jenny wouldn’t be laughing when Carly went missing.

Carly vowed she would come back from the dead just to point out to Jenny that hiking was not for everyone. Of course, she would also have to admit that Jenny was right. After all, Jenny had been the one to point out that Carly sucked at exercising and would be better off – and much safer – to just buy the gym membership.

“Okay, it wasn’t really a hike, so much as a stroll, but it still counts,” Carly told the dark walls in defiance. “The state should have put up better signs and they need to hire rangers who tell you that you’re stupid if you ignore them when they say a storm is coming.”

Carly tilted her head when she thought she caught a glimpse of light coming from the back of the cave. Her mind swept through all the possibilities. What if there was a serial killer waiting for her, or a vampire, or a… she slammed the door shut on her wild, out of control imagination when the sudden vision of the walking dead appeared in her mind. Drawing in a shaky breath, she swore she would never attend Horror Night at the local college ever again.

“Or horror movies,” Carly whispered, her hand beginning to shake. “No more Saturday night horror movie marathons. God! Why did I have to go on an alien binge this last weekend?”

Swallowing, Carly felt herself drawn to the warmth and light coming from the back of the cave like a bug to a bug zapper. Unable to resist, she stepped closer on trembling legs. The walls and floor of the cave were smoothing out the farther she walked.

Turning the corner, she stopped in surprise when she saw the light was coming from a glowing torch in a sconce attached to the wall. Further down the passage, she saw an arched doorway. It reminded her of old castles, like the one out of the Dracula movie she had watched the night before.

“Carly, you really, really need to get a better taste in movies!” she growled to herself in annoyance. “Romantic comedies are good. Animated cartoons are even better.”

She released a long breath and glanced down at the phone in her hand. She didn’t need the flashlight anymore. Swiping her finger across the screen, she turned it off. There was no sense in wasting the power on her phone now that she had the light of the torch. Plus, she needed to conserve the power so she could call the ranger and admit that she needed help – a lot of it.

Fascinated by the beauty of the elaborately carved stone that formed the walls and floor, she soon became lost in the twists and turns as she followed the passageway. A magnificently carved entrance held her spellbound. The pillars were carved into the shape of dragons.

“Oh, oh, oh! I love dragons!” Carly breathed, hurrying forward to run her hands over the beautiful sculptures.

Her mind swirled in awe. If there had been any way she could slip the huge dragons into her backpack, she would have done it in a heartbeat. Her bedroom was covered in dragon figurines and medieval castles. Carly lovingly ran her hands over the rough stone belly of one of the dragons.

“Wow! This is just… Wow! Who would have thought to put something like this here? I’ve never seen this part of the park before, that’s for sure!” she breathed out in excitement.

Turning her head, she gazed through the entrance, expecting an amusement ride attendant to be greeting her. Since when did the state parks get into the theme park business? Hell, how could they have built this without her knowing anything about it? She worked at the bank, for crying out loud. If anything happened in town, the first place to learn about it was at Barb’s Hair-n-Care; the second place was at the walk-in clinic; and the third was at Bank of the West where she worked. All gossip went through those three venues.

Carly’s hand flew to her mouth to hide her gasp when she stepped through a curved archway into the massive chamber. Rivers and mountains of gold and jewels glimmered in the faint light. She didn’t know if they were real or not. They looked like it, but she wasn’t an expert.

Despite the beauty of the glittering treasure, the gold wasn’t what caught and held her attention. No, her attention was caught by the truly magnificent form half buried at the bottom of the mountain of gold and jewels.