Soldier, p.15
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       Soldier, p.15

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  GARRET

  “Why?”

  Ember’s voice was soft, curious. I could sense the flood of questions in the air, ready to burst forth, and racked my brain for something to distract her. It wasn’t a good time to reveal what I’d discovered. Everyone was confused and in pain. I hadn’t escaped unscathed, either. My shoulder throbbed beneath my vest; it had just been a graze, and I’d stuffed a couple gauze squares under my shirt to stop the bleeding, but I was going to need medical attention, too.

  Besides, I didn’t know if I could face either dragon right now without my emotions welling to the surface. I could still see Ember, lying on the floor with the blue dragon curled around her, the warning in his eyes perfectly clear. It was my own fault, I knew that. I’d walked away, practically pushed her into his arms. I had no one to blame but myself, and I thought I had been prepared for what that meant.

  But seeing them together, remembering when Ember had looked at me like that, I realized I was very much not okay. And a very dark, ugly side of me suddenly wished Riley hadn’t made it out.

  “I’ll explain later,” I told Ember, my gaze fixed on the opposite wall. Though I could still see her from the corner of my eye, head slightly cocked, and my insides clenched. “You can trust the monks,” I went on. “If Jade says it’s safe, I believe her.” The red dragon continued to watch me without moving, and I forced myself to speak in that same low, flat voice. “Go, Ember. I’ll explain everything soon, but you need to get yourself taken care of. You won’t be any use to us injured.”

  A flash of anger, and she raised her chin, the heat of her gaze searing the side of my face. For a second, I wondered if she would snarl at me or even spit fire. But her tail lashed once and she turned away, hopping stiffly out of the truck. The monks bowed as she hit the ground, then hovered around her, speaking in low, soothing voices as three of them escorted the dragon toward the temple. Even injured, Ember still put weight on her wounded leg as she trailed them across the yard, moving like she was determined not to limp. She did not look back once.

  Riley regarded me, his expression unreadable. I knew he wanted to ask questions, too—demand that I tell him what was going on. But all he said was, “Tell Wes we’ll need more clothes,” and he slid gracefully out of the truck and trotted after Ember, followed by the remaining monks. I watched the procession of two dragons and six monks file up the path, climb the steps to the main building and vanish, one by one, through the door. As soon as Riley’s tail slid through the frame, the last monk reached out and shut the door behind him, and the world returned to normal.

  Jade walked around the side of the truck, her gaze on the now-closed door and empty veranda. “Your friends are...interesting,” she said, making me snort. “I would hate to see your enemies.” She looked back at me, black eyes assessing. “You did not mention that one of the ‘friends’ you risked your life for was desperately hoping he could rip your head off.”

  “I was a soldier of the Order,” I said wearily. “He’s the leader of a rogue dragon underground. I’m sure I’ve killed a few of his dragons in the past.” I’m also stupidly in love with the girl he considers his, and we both know it.

  “Still, you did save their lives. One would assume they would be appreciative, unless there is something going on that I am not aware of?” She gave me a pointed look, raising her eyebrows. I stared back blankly, feigning ignorance, and saw the suspicion in her gaze. I was not good at lying.

  “Are you certain we’ll be safe here?” I asked to change the subject. “What if the Order followed us?”

  A small grin tugged at her mouth. “That would be inexplicitly difficult with all their tires leaking air.”

  My brows lifted. “How did you manage that, and find a tractor-trailer?”

  “A shen-lung has her ways.” She offered a deliberately mysterious smile that made her eyes glimmer green. “In any case,” she went on, sobering, “much is at stake, and we have gambled a great deal in coming here. Are you certain your friends will help us when the time comes?”

  “I don’t know,” I answered, suddenly uncertain myself. Her lips thinned, showing her understandable displeasure; she’d come all the way here, put herself at considerable risk to help me, and the help I’d promised her might not pan out. Especially since the blue dragon had seemed to despise the Eastern dragon on sight; I hadn’t been expecting that. “Why was Riley so hostile to you?” I asked, and her lips tightened even further. “I assume the two of you have never met.”

  She let out a huff, rolling her eyes. “Misconceptions and ancient prejudices,” she said, making an exasperated gesture at the building. “The Western dragons accuse us of cowardice and placidity, saying we hide in our temples and mountain retreats to escape the war. They have never understood that it is their own greed, violence and quest for power that brings St. George down upon them.” Her voice hardened. “And now, Talon has brought the war to our very doorsteps, forcing us to respond or to be wiped out. They have set the Order on us, for no other reason than we refuse to be like them. How can we not think our Western cousins are anything but corrupt?”

  “Jade...” I moved to get down, but at that moment my shoulder sent a sharp jolt of pain up my arm, making me grit my teeth. The Eastern dragon’s eyes widened.

  “You’re injured.” She shook her head. “Why are you standing here talking to me? Go tell the monks to take care of that. I did not come all this way, across two oceans, to watch you die of blood loss.”

  “Point taken.” I dropped to the ground, clenching my jaw as my shoulder protested the landing. “What are you going to do?”

  She sniffed. “I will need to hide this—oh, what would you Westerners call it?—this giant-ass truck, just in case the Order drives up the road and sees it.” Her gaze flickered over the semi, then went to the winding, narrow path behind us. “I don’t think we were followed, but I will take no chances this time. I will not stand by and watch another temple burn to the ground.”

  I nodded, watching as she headed around the front of the vehicle. “Jade,” I said quietly, making her turn back. “Thank you. For what you did today.”

  She smiled grimly. “Let us hope it was worth it,” she said. “Oh, and tell that blue dragon, if he hurts any of my monks, he will see how placid an Eastern dragon can be when I am serenely tearing the heart from his chest.”

  She turned away, and I started up the path to the building, wondering if the monks had a first-aid kit they could lend me. If they were busy patching up dragons, I could take care of my injuries myself. I’d done it many times before.

  Abruptly remembering the phone in my hand, I glanced down at it, the number Riley had given me still displayed across the screen. Wes’s number. I hoped he was all right, because we would need him soon. If we were to pull off the huge, crazy, impossible mission lurking in my head, we would need all the help we could get.

  I tapped the call button, then put the phone to my ear and waited.

  DANTE

  I stared at the bank of screens in front of me, each showing a different portion of the warehouse, and waited for the infiltration to begin.

  “The vessels have been released,” Dr. Olsen said behind me. “They’re on their way now.”

  I gave a short nod, not taking my eyes from the screens. It had been a few weeks since the incident with the vessels, and since then, Mace had stepped up their training, pushing them hard to see what they could do, making them work as a unit. Now, with Talon’s unofficial deadline nearly upon us, it was time for a field test. The mission today: reach the command team—myself, Dr. Olsen and Ms. Sutton—in the center of the warehouse without being detected. With all the cameras up top and in the aisles, it was impossible for me not to see them coming, but there were also several “guards” roaming the aisles with paintball guns, on the lookout for intruders. The vessels were under strict orders to de
al with threats in a nonlethal manner, and Mace had assured me they understood they were not to permanently harm anyone.

  Still, the overall mood was tense. We all knew what they were capable of. They understood that they weren’t to kill anyone only because they had been ordered not to. Not because of any sense of right and wrong. Without that command, without them being told specifically not to kill, no one would be safe.

  Would that programming hold today, in a live simulation? Guess we’ll find out soon enough.

  “There they are,” Dr. Olsen murmured behind me. “Right on schedule.”

  I straightened in my chair, my gaze leaping from screen to screen until I found them. A group of eight armed, identical humans creeping through a narrow aisle with guns raised. They advanced in unison, stealthy and graceful, almost serpentine in their movements. When a guard passed down an adjacent corridor, the lead vessel held up a fist, and as one the unit froze. They didn’t move, not to change position, lower their guns, or even blink. They were like rocks until the guard continued out of sight, and the lead vessel dropped his arm.

  I smiled grimly. So far, so good. Like shadows, the unit continued through the warehouse, weaving down aisles and blending into the darkness. They were unnaturally efficient, moving as if they shared one mind, never speaking or making any noise. When a guard blocked the end of an aisle, facing away from them, the unit halted, drawing back into the shadows, and one vessel melted from the pack. Sidling up behind the guard, it snaked one arm around his neck while covering his mouth with the other. The human jerked, flailed uselessly for a few seconds, beating at the arm around his neck, before lapsing into unconsciousness. Without hesitation, the vessel dragged the body behind a pallet, and the unit continued on as before.

  “This is entirely too easy for them,” Dr. Olsen remarked, sounding unabashedly pleased. “Unless something unexpected happens, they’ll be here in a few minutes.”

  “Yes,” I agreed, my fingers straying to a bright alarm button near the panels. My heart pounded, but this had to be done. We had to know exactly what the vessels would do in any situation. “So, let’s see how they handle the unexpected.”

  I pressed the button. Instantly, an alarm blared, sirens howling a shrill warning through the warehouse. Spotlights flashed on, circles of light scanning the floors and aisles, and all the guards instantly snapped to alertness.

  Leaning forward, I grabbed a microphone and twisted it toward me, my voice broadcasting through the vast room. “Intruders in aisle forty-nine. I repeat, intruders in aisle forty-nine. All stations respond immediately.”

  The vessels didn’t hesitate. My voice had barely died away when the entire unit Shifted, becoming metallic, iron gray dragons in the blink of an eye. Guns clattering to the floor, they scattered in all directions, scaling walls and bounding into the darkness. Within seconds, the entire unit had disappeared.

  Surprised, I looked at the screens, trying to follow their movements. All I saw were flashes, a ripple here, the streak of a lean body there. A pair of guards managed to trap one vessel in a corner, shooting it several times with their guns and covering its scales with red paint. The dragon instantly collapsed, flattening itself to the cement, and didn’t move.

  I jerked in alarm, but Dr. Olsen shook his head with a smile. “Don’t worry, Mr. Hill,” he told me. “It’s not hurt. The vessels were told to play dead if they were shot. It’s just following orders.”

  I relaxed, watching the two guards lower their guns and step back from the “dead” dragon. The vessel didn’t move, and stayed so completely motionless, I might have really thought it dead if I didn’t know better. Triumphant, the men turned to leave, and a second vessel instantly lunged from its hiding place and pounced on them both.

  My stomach dropped as the dragon slammed into the humans from behind, sending them both to the floor. I hoped I was not about to watch the vessel rip them apart with the same detachment it showed its brothers. But after that first hit, the guards didn’t move, either, lying motionless on the ground as the dragon hovered over them. Dr. Olsen gave a dark chuckle.

  “Our men were also told to play dead and not to move if they were attacked,” he said smugly. “As long as they are no longer a threat, the vessels will consider them neutralized and move on. Glad to see that they did not forget themselves and start fighting. It might’ve been messy, otherwise.”

  Heart in my throat, I looked back at the screens, catching fleeting glimpses of dragons darting through the shadows. Shouts and the huff of paintball fire sounded over the speakers, followed by the occasional yell of surprise and pain. The vessels didn’t make a sound as they swept through with brutal effectiveness. For several minutes, chaos reigned over the speakers, as one by one, the humans fell. The final guard, creeping down an aisle, clearly nervous as he stepped over the bodies of his fallen brethren, barely had time to look up at the ceiling before the dragon hanging upside down by the rafters dropped on him like a monstrous bat. There was one terrified shriek, and then static.

  For several heartbeats, we waited. On the screens, nothing moved. No humans, dragons or even the ripple of a shadow showed up on any of the cameras. Except for the bodies lying on the cement, the warehouse was eerily still.

  Then, a thump sounded on the roof overhead, followed by another. I glanced up, as Dr. Olsen and Ms. Sutton did the same, a proud smile curling the scientist’s mouth.

  “I believe they’re here.”

  Rising from my chair, I walked across the floor, threw the heavy lock and opened the door.

  Four dragons stared at me from the other side, pale eyes shining in the darkness. Another two perched on the roof of the security hut like gargoyles, and a third crouched on a stack of crates nearby, wings partially flared for balance. Seven pairs of flat, emotionless eyes fixed solely on me.

  “Gentlemen,” Ms. Sutton said, sounding triumphant. “I believe we have our answer. What do you think, Mr. Hill?”

  I looked around, seeing myself reflected in those flat, alien eyes, and smiled.

  “Yes,” I said, as the lead dragon watched me with the expression of a statue. “I think they’re ready.”

  EMBER

  Annoyingly cheerful birdsong penetrated my comfortable sleep.

  Nostrils twitching, I opened my eyes, then squinted at the sunlight coming through an open window. Raising my head, I peered at my surroundings, letting my mind catch up to the present. I was in dragon form, lying in the same small room I’d been shown to last night by men in orange robes. I remembered a flurry of movement, the shuffle of bare feet around me and the babble of voices speaking in a language I didn’t know. I recalled one smiling monk kneeling at my head, talking to me throughout the removal of the bullet in my leg. And though I hadn’t understand a word he said, his voice had been low and soothing, and the fingers against my brow cool, even through my scales. He was, I reflected, very brave to sit at the head of an injured dragon while his companions dug a bullet out of its leg, with the patient hissing and growling in pain through the whole ordeal.

  Carefully, I sat up, bracing myself, but though there was a dull ache at the site of the wound, my leg felt strangely numb, almost tingly. Craning my neck around, I examined my flank. A gauze square had been taped over the wound, so I couldn’t see the injury, but it felt clean and taken care of, certainly better than when I’d had a piece of lead jammed under my scales. Although the bandage gave off a strong herbal smell that made me flinch and pull back.

  At least it doesn’t hurt much. Yay for painkillers, in whatever form they come. I’ve really got to stop this whole being-shot thing. I pushed myself upright and stretched, shaking out my neck and wings, and looked around. Wonder where everyone is?

  Memories of the night before came back to me: gunfire and soldiers, the smell of smoke and fear, being trapped underground with men closing in on all sides. Cobalt’s fervent whisp
ers, huddling behind a counter, waiting to die. And then, his sudden arrival, and the way my heart stuttered when I realized who it was.

  With a sigh, I pushed those thoughts away before the tide of emotion behind the gates could smash through and overwhelm me. Sooner or later, I would have to face him again, and I was both anticipating and dreading that encounter, but I wasn’t going to think about it now. Spotting a pile of neatly folded clothes on a cot, I padded over to examine them, finding loose jeans, underwear and a T-shirt. At least someone had been prepared for the eventual Shifting back, though as always, I was reluctant to return to human form after being myself for so long. But on the bright side, I wouldn’t have to mince around the temple in a slinky Viper suit or orange robes eight sizes too big.

  As I forced myself back to human form, my leg gave a weak throb, making me grit my teeth. But whatever numbing salve had been smeared on the wound did its job. After peeling out of the Viper suit, I changed carefully, sliding the jeans over the bandages, grateful that the denim didn’t rub against my skin. After pulling on the shirt, I raked my fingers through my hair, wincing at the snarls. Ouch. Why in the world is it always so tangled after a Shift? It’s not like I’m flying around with my hair blowing in the wind. Briefly, I wondered if I could borrow a brush from someone, then realized how ridiculous that was. Bald monks, Ember. This place probably hasn’t seen a comb since the day it was built.

  When I was convinced I looked at least halfway presentable—harder than it sounded, since the room had no mirrors—I pushed open the door to my room and stepped out into the hall. A monk coming through another doorway instantly stopped and bowed to me, hands pressed under his chin. Slightly uncomfortable—I wasn’t used to being bowed to—I offered a weak smile and raised my hand.

  “Um. Hi.” He nodded pleasantly, but his gaze remained intense, as if waiting for me to ask him something. “I’m looking for my friends,” I continued, wondering if he understood a word I was saying. “Do you know where I can find them?”

 
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