Soldier, p.14
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       Soldier, p.14

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  * * *

  For a few seconds, nobody moved or said a word. The only sounds were the ragged, gasping breaths of everyone in the container, and the scatter of gunshots fading behind us. Garret still stood at the door, his side braced in the corner and his gun held to his chest, listening to the sounds outside. Cobalt crouched in front of me, sides heaving and fangs bared, glaring at Garret. The semi continued to move, turning corners with the squealing of rubber, making me stumble and clench my jaw, before it finally leveled out and rapidly picked up speed. The sounds of guns and battle faded, and soon the rumble of tires on pavement was all that could be heard.

  Garret let out a long breath and lowered his gun. Slumping against the wall, he bowed his head and let the weapon fall to his side. For a moment, he looked exhausted, almost grief stricken. But he quickly raised his head and looked at us. “Is everyone all right?” he asked in a weary voice.

  “Still alive, St. George,” Cobalt growled, though the words were tight with pain, his movements stiff. “Maybe a little less than when we started, though. Ember was hit in the leg, and there’s a chunk missing from my tail that doesn’t feel the greatest. Nothing life-threatening, but we’ll need a safe place to get patched up.” He glanced at me, then turned back, shaking his head. “Also, somewhere along the line, we’re going to need clothes, unless you plan to hide two dragons in the back of a semi for a while.”

  He sounded way too normal, like this was a perfectly ordinary situation: the soldier I’d never thought I’d see again showing up and saving us from St. George. Garret gave a tired nod. “I can help with at least two of those things,” he said, just as something buzzed in his pocket. Pulling out a phone, he held it to his ear. “Jade, people have been hurt,” he told whoever was on the other end. “We need to find a safe place now.” A moment of silence, and he nodded once. “Good. Get us there.”

  Lowering the phone, he winced and slid down until he was sitting against the wall. I stepped around Cobalt and limped up to the soldier, trying to keep the weight off my back leg. He watched me approach until I stood looming over him. Our gazes met, and he offered a faint smile.

  “Hey, you,” he murmured, in a voice meant only for me.

  There was so much there, so many hidden emotions in that one short phrase. “Hey,” I whispered back. “You’re...back.”

  “I’m back,” he repeated. “Surprised to see me?”

  I started to answer, but suddenly caught the scent of blood, soaking his clothes, and snorted in alarm. “Were you hit?”

  He nodded once. “Almost impossible to make it through that without being shot,” he answered tiredly. One hand rose to touch his shoulder, and his brow creased. “I think it’s a graze. Bloody, but not serious. Truthfully, I’m surprised we all got out. I wasn’t expecting to...”

  He trailed off. I narrowed my eyes at him. “You weren’t expecting to come out of that alive,” I finished.

  He didn’t answer and, at that moment, Cobalt stepped up, so close that our wings brushed together. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I felt the echo of a growl in the back of his throat as he crowded in. Though his voice was perfectly normal as he gazed down at the soldier.

  “What’s the plan, St. George?” he asked.

  Garret eyed the blue dragon calmly, seemingly unconcerned with two giant lizards standing a lunge away from him. “Jade has a place we can go,” he answered. “It’s a few hours from here.” His gaze flickered to my back leg and darkened with concern. “How are your injuries? I don’t have a first-aid kit on me. Can you hold up until then?”

  “I don’t think we have a choice,” Cobalt growled, sounding pained. “Not unless there’s an emergency room close by that takes dragons. But don’t worry about us—we can take a lot more punishment than humans, as I’m sure you already know.” He glanced at me then, his gaze softening. “Firebrand? You going to be okay?”

  “Yeah.” I wanted to stay, to ask the soldier more questions, but that was going to be impossible with Cobalt hovering so close. Besides, my leg was throbbing, and staying on my feet was feeling more and more like a bad idea. I was sore, confused, overwhelmed and felt I could bite something with very little provocation. “I’ll be fine. I’m going to lie down and growl at anything that asks me questions.”

  Turning from them both, I limped to the back of the box and lowered myself onto the dirty floor with a groan. Craning my neck, I found the hole in my flank left behind by a St. George bullet. The scales around the puncture were cracked and broken, and blood oozed slowly down my leg. I was suddenly filled with a primal urge to lick the wound clean, but figured I’d better wait for disinfectant and painkillers.

  Cobalt padded toward me like a cat, curved talons scraping against the floor, his eyes glowing yellow in the dim light. Puzzled, I watched as he circled around, then abruptly lay down next to me, curling his lean body around mine. My heart jumped as he pressed close, one wing draped over my back, long tail coiling around us both. Warmth spread through me, soothing and wonderful, and I suddenly felt completely safe.

  But my gaze still couldn’t help but stray to the soldier, still slumped against the wall with one knee to his chest, watching us with a bleak look of resignation. Part of me resented him being there, watching us; a human who could never fully understand me, not like Cobalt. And part of me longed to Shift, to sit beside him as a human and talk, perhaps ease some of the terrible sorrow in his eyes. To feel the warmth of his skin when we kissed, or that feeling of rightness when his arms slid around me and I pressed close, just listening to his heartbeat.

  With an inner growl, I laid my head on my tail and closed my eyes. I am a dragon, I reminded myself. Garret left for a reason.

  “Dammit,” Cobalt muttered. “I left my jacket back at the lab.”

  RILEY

  Well, this sucked donkey balls.

  I was grateful to the soldier. I was. His timing had been impeccable, and I was trying not to let my baser instincts get in the way of reason. To not give in to the urge to snarl a challenge every time he looked at Ember. Without him, I had no doubt I’d be a holey lump of meat and scales lying on the laboratory floor. A trophy for some St. George bastard to take home and hang above his fireplace. I knew the human had come back for us, that he was the sole reason Ember and I were still alive.

  But, at the same time, he was back, his very presence making things problematic. And here I thought I’d gotten rid of him for good. Maybe that was shortsighted of me. We had the same enemies; the Order hated him just as much as they hated us now. If he’d known St. George had laid a trap for us—because that was a very obvious trap that I’d walked into like a moron, damn Griffin to hell and back—I would expect him to return and help. If for no other reason than to save Ember.

  But knowing how he felt about my fiery hatchling, seeing the way he looked at her, made me want to stalk over and sink my claws into his face.

  I bit back a growl. That was instinct talking, my jealous, overprotective male dragon genes coming out, made worse by the fact that I was angry, sickened, confused and sore as hell. Injured, cranky dragons were not known for being reasonable. The base of my tail throbbed from where I’d taken a bullet, and the slug was probably still in there somewhere. Still, better to be shot in the butt than through the heart, and once the slug came out the wound would heal quickly. Though sitting down was going to be obnoxiously painful the next few days.

  Dammit. What is Talon up to? I thought back to the laboratory, the glass tubes, the way my skin had crawled when I’d realized they were for living creatures. For dragons. What are they doing to us? How can they justify experimenting on their own kind? My stomach turned in rage, and I swallowed the flames wanting to crawl up my throat. I knew they were corrupt; I never thought they would stoop to this.

  Ember stirred against me, a soft whimper escaping her clenched jaws, though she tried to hide i
t. My worry and protectiveness spiked, and I lowered my head, laying my chin against her neck.

  “Hang in there, Firebrand,” I murmured, watching her talons curl, digging into the floor. “I know it sucks, but try not to think about it. You’re okay. I’m right here.”

  She relaxed a bit. “I’m mad at you, you know,” she whispered, making me blink in surprise. Her green gaze rose to mine, fierce and indignant, her pupils razor thin with pain and anger. “What was that, back there? Throwing yourself at the soldiers for me? You don’t think I would’ve followed?”

  “Ah. I was hoping you might forget that. Not so much, huh?” I offered a small grin that didn’t appease her in the slightest, and sighed. “I need you to survive, Firebrand,” I told her softly. “If I die, I’m counting on you and Wes to keep going for me. To take care of my hatchlings and my network, everyone I’ve gotten out of Talon. Without some sort of guidance, without someone fighting for them, the underground will fall apart. Talon will kill or take them all back, maybe to a laboratory like the one we saw tonight.” She shivered, and I eased closer, seeing my solemn reflection in those emerald eyes.

  “You promised to help me fight,” I said. “But I need more than that, Ember. You can’t stop just because I’m gone. Promise me you’ll take care of my underground even if I’m not there anymore. I need to know that my hatchlings will be safe, that I’m leaving them in good hands.”

  She blew out a ragged breath. “I can’t do what you do, Cobalt,” she whispered back. “I don’t know the first thing about your network or how to keep it going, but...I’ll try. I’ll do my best to keep everyone safe and away from Talon and the Order, but you have to promise you’ll keep fighting, too. Don’t you dare give up and die on me. I think I would kill Wes before the day was out.”

  I chuckled. “Fair enough.” Though that reminded me, I needed to call my surly human friend soon, make sure he’d gotten out okay. I knew Wes; when I gave the order to clear out, he cleared out. No use in both of us dying, and there was nothing he could do against an army with guns. Though he would be insufferable after this; I would have to endure a few thousand I told you sos for the next month at least. Right now, he was probably having a nervous breakdown. Hopefully where we were going had a phone, and a place for me to Shift so I could use it.

  “Good.” Ember sniffed, curled into a ball and laid her head on her tail. “Just remember that.”

  Smiling, I pressed closer, laying my neck against hers, feeling the rise and fall of her breath. As her tail curled with mine, my gaze went to the soldier, still sitting against the wall. He wasn’t looking at us, gazing at the door of the container, but I curled a lip at him, anyway, baring fangs in a silent warning.

  Ember is mine, St. George. You can’t have her. This time, I’ll fight if I have to.

  * * *

  The truck finally pulled off the highway, took several measured turns and slowed even more as the tires left pavement and crunched over gravel. We rumbled and bounced along what felt like a winding mountain road for several miles, making Ember growl and dig her claws into my tail, before the truck finally shuddered to a halt.

  St. George rose, his posture tense, and we followed his example, Ember letting out a small hiss as she pushed herself upright. Footsteps crunched outside and then the door creaked partway open, letting in a rush of cool night air.

  A young Chinese woman peered through the opening, dark eyes solemn as they fell on Ember and me, then sought the soldier by the door. “I’ve talked to my people here,” she told the human as, with a jolt, I realized what she was. “They’re expecting us.”

  “Holy hell,” I said, as both of them turned to stare at me. “Where did you find an Eastern dragon, St. George?”

  “London,” the human replied, a faint smile cracking his stoic expression. “And you have it backward. She found me.” He nodded to the Asian woman, who regarded me coolly over the opening. “This is Jade. She’s agreed to help us, if we can aid her in return.”

  “Oh?” I smirked, staring the Eastern dragon down. “Has something finally happened, then? Is St. George banging your doors down now? Because that’s the only reason I can think of for you to come begging for our help. I guess closing your eyes and pretending the war doesn’t exist isn’t working anymore.”

  The soldier blinked at me, surprised, but Jade’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “I see our Western cousins’ reputation for rudeness is well-founded,” she replied.

  “At least we stand and fight,” I returned. “Not hide in temples and pretend nothing is wrong, that the war won’t ever touch us.”

  “It was not our war.” Jade slitted her eyes, and I saw the glimmer of pale green shine through for half a second. “We wanted nothing to do with your Western ways—the violence, the killing, the constant scrabble for power. All we desired was a peaceful existence, a simple life, the way we have lived for centuries.”

  “Yeah? And where did that get you?”

  “Stop it.” The soldier’s voice interrupted us, quiet but steely. I looked at him in surprise. “We are not enemies,” he went on. “We’re on the same side, and there’s no time for this. Things are happening that we need to discuss, but first we need everyone healthy again. Standing here arguing about the past is not going to help.”

  “Also,” a tight, impatient voice at my back chimed in, “I’m going to start biting things if I don’t get this bullet out soon.”

  The human’s expression clouded with worry, but he turned back to the Eastern dragon. “Jade, you said your people are expecting us. Does that mean that they know about...?” He gestured to Ember and me.

  “Yes.” Jade gave a somber nod. She opened the door farther, revealing a large rectangular building behind her. Wooden pillars lined the veranda, and the roof was tiled in red, giving the structure a distinctly Asian feel. “We are at the Zheng Ji temple,” Jade went on. “It’s safe for our kind here—there are no visitors or outsiders allowed. The monks who run this temple are aware of our existence and are sworn to secrecy. We can trust them.” Her acidic gaze flicked to me again. “So try not to singe or snap at them when they attempt to help you. They’re not used to dealing with barbarians.”

  I would’ve said something suitably barbaric, but with the shuffle of bare feet on the wooden deck, six humans in orange robes rushed out of the building toward us. All of them stopped to bow deeply to Jade, and one old human spoke to her in Mandarin while the rest peered into the truck with large, curious eyes. I sat down, curling my tail around myself, and resisted the impulse to bare my teeth at them. There was a large difference between knowing dragons existed and actually seeing one, and we were probably the first real dragons these humans had ever laid eyes on, but I still didn’t like being stared at like some weird zoo animal.

  I was also sore, tired, and feeling unreasonably surly and overprotective, so that probably wasn’t helping things. And the thought of a bunch of strange bald men poking and prodding at me set my teeth on edge. I hoped Ember would keep her temper under control. Injured, grumpy dragons did not make the best patients, either.

  Finally, the old man stepped forward, rheumy gaze settling on Ember and me, and sank into a deep bow that bent him nearly in half. If he felt any shock or awe about facing two mythological creatures in the back of a semitruck, it didn’t show on his face as he rose. “Welcome to the Zheng Ji temple, honored ones,” he said in perfect English, and lifted a wrinkled hand. “We have individual rooms set up for all of you. Please, follow us.”

  “Riley.” St. George pushed himself off the wall, stopping me as I went forward. I gave him a wary look, wondering if this was about Ember, but he didn’t even look at the red hatchling as she limped past us toward the front of the container. Ember stopped as well, blinking, but the soldier kept his eyes on me. “Where is Wes?” he asked. “Was he with you when the Order attacked?”

  I shook m
y head. “I told him to get the hell out as soon as we knew what was happening. Right now, I assume he’s on his way to a random hotel to wait for my call, that’s how these things usually work.” I bared my teeth in a grimace. “Unfortunately, my burner phone is with the rest of my clothes, back at the lab. I’ll need to find a phone and call Wes soon, before he receives a call from the Order, freaks out and disappears.”

  “What’s the number?” The soldier pulled out a phone. “I’ll call him for you, explain what’s going on and that you’re both okay.”

  You’re very helpful all of sudden, I thought, natural suspicion for the former dragonslayer flaring up again. What’s going on here, St. George? But I did need to contact Wes, and I couldn’t do it in my present form. “Yeah,” I said, nodding. “That would be helpful. Thanks.” I recited the number from memory, watching as he plugged it into the phone. “You might have to call twice,” I said when I finished. “If he doesn’t recognize the number, he won’t pick up on the first try. He’s kind of paranoid like that.” The soldier nodded absently, and I frowned. “I do have one question, though, St. George.”

  He paused, his thumb hovering over the screen, and I gave him a scrutinizing look. “Why?” I asked. “Why come back? Why go through all this trouble to find us again?”

  Beside me, Ember tensed, as if she, too, was waiting for his answer. The soldier’s eyes grew dark. “Because I want all of us together as soon as possible,” he said firmly, and something in his voice caused a chill to run down my spine. “Because what I found in London...” He shook his head. “It’s bigger than me, than all of us. Possibly bigger than anything we’ve ever faced. We can’t fight each other now. We need everybody and every ally we have to figure out what to do next.”

 
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