Soldier, p.18
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       Soldier, p.18

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
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  Two black armored vehicles wound their way up the narrow mountain road.

  Perched in the branches of a pine tree, my M4 held loosely in both hands, I watched the Order of St. George approach and took a quiet breath, then let it out slowly. Around me, the woods were silent, my companions nowhere to be seen. Wes was the only one of our party to remain behind at the monastery, and he was probably doing the sensible thing and hiding in the deepest, darkest hole he could find. The rest of the monks, when told what was happening, refused to flee or take shelter, and instead filed into the main hall to meditate. They did not fear death, Jade told a frustrated Riley. They would not cower and hide in their own temple. If the Order came for them, they would meet them with dignity and respect, as they did all facets of life.

  Which meant, if we failed here, the entire monastery would almost certainly be slaughtered for associating with dragons.

  I shivered a little in the warm sun, realizing what I was about to do, what this ambush truly meant. A line had been crossed today. I was no longer killing my former brothers in self-defense. This wasn’t me fighting my way through the Order to save the very dragons I’d once hunted. This was a calculated decision; I was going to kill the soldiers of St. George, and I wouldn’t stop until the entire strike force was dead or incapacitated.

  Abruptly, I remembered Tristan’s face, the contempt in his eyes as he’d tried to kill me, and I desperately hoped he wouldn’t be with this squad. If he was, I’d have to shoot him. He was far too dangerous to ignore, able to kill any of my companions in a single shot. If I saw Tristan St. Anthony through the scope of my rifle, I’d have no choice but to pull the trigger. If he didn’t take me out first.

  A heaviness settled over me, and I shook it off, tightening the grip on my weapon. I’d chosen my side. Even if I could return to the Order, I wouldn’t. Not with what I knew now.

  The trucks drew closer, the sound of the engines rumbling over the trees. I pressed a button on my phone, put it to my ear and murmured, “Now.”

  For a quiet moment, nothing happened. The forest was deathly still. I hefted the M4 and pointed it down the road, training the muzzle on the front windshield of the first car. Curling my finger around the trigger, I held my breath.

  A sudden wind rattled the branches of the pine trees, and lightning flickered in the previously cloudless sky. I spared a quick glance up, and my skin prickled.

  A dark wall of clouds was rising over the treetops, sweeping across the blue. Wind blasted my perch, heavy with the scent of rain, and the sun rapidly disappeared, turning everything dark. Below me, the truck’s headlights flashed on, as thunder growled menacingly and lightning flickered again, like a strobe light.

  With a roar, the skies opened up, and water plunged down in sheets. I was instantly drenched, my clothes plastered to my body, as curtains of rain slammed into the trucks, slowing them to a near crawl. It was suddenly difficult to see anything more than ten feet away, as the storm turned everything into a hazy blur.

  There was another blinding flash of lightning, a crack of thunder that shook the trees, as a forty-foot Asian dragon landed on the second vehicle with a roar.

  Even though I’d been expecting it, I jumped. And for a moment, I just stared at the dragon that had apparently appeared from a lightning bolt. Jade in her true form was very different from her Western counterparts—long and slender, her body twice the length of Ember or Riley and her tail even longer than that. Her scales were the pale green of her namesake, and a silvery-white mane ran from her horned skull down her coiled neck and back, and past the tip of her tail. She didn’t have wings, but moved through the air like water, and almost seemed to hover, weightless, over the ground. Digging her talons into the roof, she screamed and tore at the truck, lashing her tail against the doors. Glass shattered, and the vehicle rocked from side to side under her relentless assault.

  Shouts and gunfire echoed over the rain as the doors of the other vehicle opened and soldiers poured out, weapons blazing. Swiftly, I raised my gun and fired, striking several before they knew what was happening. A few of them turned, peering into the storm, trying to determine where the shots were coming from.

  With a streak of crimson and leathery wings, Ember swooped in with a howl, blasting a cone of flame down a line of soldiers. She didn’t stop, but continued into the trees, vanishing through the branches as shots rang out behind her. At the same time, Cobalt descended from the opposite direction, breathing fire onto another group and winging away out of sight.

  Confusion broke out through the ranks. Several soldiers scanned the sky with raised guns, expecting another guerrilla attack from swooping dragons. A few hunkered behind the truck to escape the gunfire coming from the forest. But most of the attention was on the large Eastern dragon still savaging the second vehicle. Shots were fired through the roof, missing or sparking off her chest and belly plates, and Jade snarled in fury. Snaking her head through the shattered glass, she dragged a soldier, shouting and kicking, out the window and hurled him into the forest. The body flew through the air, struck a tree with a sickening crack and dropped motionless to the ground.

  The rest of the soldiers converged on her, firing their guns. Raising my own, I put three down in rapid succession, forcing myself to fire on their less protected backs. As they fell, Ember swooped from the trees, pounced on another soldier and blasted two more with flame. I shot the soldiers aiming at her back, just as Cobalt bounded from the trees, leaped onto the hood of the second truck and sent a firestorm roaring through the broken windshield. Screams echoed from within the vehicle, and the stench of charred flesh and armor reached me through the pouring rain.

  And then, quite suddenly, there was nothing left to shoot. Rain hammered the trucks, and steam hissed through the air as the storm put out the flickering dragonfires, smothering the flames. Bodies lay everywhere, scattered around the trucks, broken and burned, as the rain slowly washed away the blood and quenched the last of the fire.

  Swallowing the bitterness in my throat, I glanced at the trio of dragons surrounding the vehicles. My gaze instantly sought the red dragon standing at the edge of the road. She had taken a few steps back from the soldiers she had killed and was now staring around the battlefield at the bodies surrounding her. It was hard to tell with dragons, but she looked almost sickened. Her wings were pressed tight to her body and her stance was more of a cringe than a crouch. Killing still didn’t sit well with her, even if they were soldiers of St. George. Or maybe it was the mass destruction and slaughter we’d caused, and the realization was just now hitting home.

  Truthfully, even though I felt sympathy and guilt in equal measures, I was relieved. She was still the same. The Ember I’d known...the girl I’d fallen for, was stubborn, hotheaded and all too willing to fight if push came to shove, but even as a dragon, she had never been a coldhearted killer. It had been her mercy, her refusal to kill a known enemy, that had made me realize the Order was wrong. It was because of her that I was here now, risking my life to protect the creatures I’d once driven toward extinction. Because a dragon had spared the life of a soldier of St. George, and everything had changed.

  I climbed down from the tree and made my way toward them, silently asking forgiveness as I passed the bodies in the road, the shells of my former brothers in arms. There were more than a dozen of them sprawled over the pavement, burned, blackened, or shot in the back. The attack had been swift and brutal, and had worked only because we’d taken them completely by surprise. Then, of course, there was the storm, which had helped immensely as it was difficult to track targets in the wind and driving rain, especially if you didn’t know where they were coming from. The Order certainly never expected the weather to turn on them out of the blue, but apparently, there was a lot about dragons we still didn’t know.

  Like Eastern dragons being able to call down a thunderstorm. I shook my hea
d in amazement, remembering the disbelief I’d felt when she’d first told us her plan. Just like the old legends said. I guess some magic isn’t quite as gone as we thought.

  Still atop the truck, Jade regarded me with solemn, pale green eyes as I approached, her mane rippling behind her in the wind. The rain had lessened somewhat, the lightning had ceased and the main fury of the storm had died with the soldiers. “It is done,” the Eastern dragon stated, sounding neither happy nor sad about it. “I must return to the temple and inform Abbot Lang that we were victorious. I will meet you there soon.”

  Lifting her head, the Asian dragon rose off the roof, her serpentine body moving from side to side as she climbed into the air and “swam” away over the trees.

  As soon as she was gone, the rain faded to a drizzle and died, the clouds slowly parted and the sun shone through the branches again.

  On the hood of the truck, Riley snorted, looking simultaneously pleased and disgusted as he gazed around at the carnage. “Well, that was terrifying,” he stated, though he didn’t exactly sound broken up about it. “I can’t believe we actually pulled it off. And that the Eastern dragon actually summoned a freaking thunderstorm.” He craned his neck in the direction Jade had vanished. “St. George is going to crap a brick when they find out.”

  I moved beside Ember, forcing myself not to reach out and touch her, keeping my hands firmly on my M4. Her scales gleamed metallic red in the light, and spots where the sun hit them directly were almost too bright to look at. But her eyes were dark as she gazed over the bodies, the green shadowed nearly to black.

  “Are you all right?” I asked softly, and she let out a gusty sigh.

  “No. Not really.” Turning, she faced me, her narrow muzzle almost level with my face. “I’m so tired of this, Garret,” she said, though the anger in her voice wasn’t directed at me. “More death, more killing, more chances that somebody I know could die at any time. I know it’s a war, and I know it’s either us or them, but...when will it stop?” She glanced back at the bodies, shivered and closed her eyes. “I’m not afraid to fight,” she muttered, “but right now, it feels like we’re at war with everyone.”

  “We are,” I told her, as that emerald gaze shifted to me again. “We might be fighting the Order now, but Talon is the one pulling the strings. Once we sever that connection, things will go back to normal.”

  “Normal.” Ember curled a lip, revealing a flash of razor-sharp fangs. “Normal isn’t that hot, either. We’ll still be killing each other, battle after battle, running and fighting in an endless circle. It seems so pointless.” She sat down, curling her tail around her legs, and sighed. “Even if we survive St. George and Talon, will there ever be an end to it all? Or will I still be doing this exact same thing three hundred years from now?”

  My stomach twisted at the last statement. Another reminder that Ember was a completely different species than me, that she saw life in an entirely different way. One that was measured in centuries instead of decades. If nothing happened to her, she would see nations rise and fall, live through several wars and see the world transform around her. Long after I was dead and gone.

  “Maybe you’ll change it,” I told her softly. “You have the time, and a lot can happen in a few hundred years. The way things are going with Talon and the Order, it can’t continue like this. Things are going to hit critical mass, and then who knows what the fallout will be after that? Maybe someday, you’ll actually see the war come to an end.” One way or another.

  “Maybe.” She looked at me, and there was something different in her gaze, now. A glint of realization, of dark promise. “Do you really think it’s possible?” she asked. “That we could see the end of this stupid fighting?”

  “You might,” I told her. “I don’t think I will.”

  She cocked her head, regarding me with curious dragon eyes. “Why not?”

  “Because soldiers of St. George don’t live very long.” I gazed at the bodies of the men surrounding us. “Even if they’re on the other side.”

  She straightened, wings fluttering, as she realized what I meant. “Garret...”

  With a metallic screech of claws, Riley leaped off the truck and padded toward us, stepping carefully over bodies and abandoned firearms. His stance wasn’t overly hostile as he approached, but it was concerned. Maybe slightly protective, the way his eyes flickered between Ember and me, and the way his nostrils flared, like he was sucking in the breath for a gout of flame.

  With a start, I realized how wrong I’d been before. Reading dragon body language, and the nuanced ways they showed emotion or state of mind, was fairly easy. It wasn’t that different from discerning human body language, really, once you knew what to look for. Or maybe I was just getting better at it. Back in the Order, we’d studied our foes in battle extensively, learning the subtle shifts that told us when they were going to attack, retreat, fly away and—probably the most important—breathe fire. But no one took it further than that, because dragons weren’t supposed to show real emotion. Stay with them for any length of time, however, and the emotions became clear as day. Was I the only member of St. George to notice this? Was the Order so blind that they just didn’t see it, or was their ignorance deliberate, because it was easier to accept they were slaughtering monsters and not people?

  “We should get out of the open,” Riley said as he trotted up. And, I couldn’t be certain, but I thought I saw Ember flinch as the blue dragon joined us. “I don’t feel comfortable standing here where a random human could see us.” He glanced at the sprawl of corpses, and curled a lip. “Any idea how long we have before the Order shows up again, St. George?”

  “Not long,” I said wearily. “Someone probably radioed headquarters as soon as the attack hit. They’ll piece together what happened and be back with even more numbers, maybe as soon as tomorrow. We’ll need to leave ASAP, and the monks need to get out of here, too. If we can convince them.”

  “Yeah, that’s what I figured.” Riley shook his head with a grimace. “Hopefully our Asian friend can persuade them to run and not sit there getting shot full of holes.” With a snort, he nodded to me and stepped away. “Let’s go, Firebrand. We should head back, find Wes and the others, and get them ready to move out.”

  “You two go ahead. I’ll clean up here.” The two dragons paused, and I gestured at the trucks and the sprawl of bodies in the road. “I need to hide the bodies and the trucks in case a civilian comes by and sees this. If the bodies are discovered, law enforcement will be all over the place.”

  “We don’t have time to bury them, St. George,” Riley said impatiently. “We need to move. The Order could be breathing down our necks in a few hours.”

  “I’m not burying them.” I set the M4 aside and moved toward one of the soldiers, lying on his back and staring vacantly at the sky. “I’m putting them in the trucks and driving the trucks to the monastery. They don’t have to be hidden well, or for long.” My voice sounded strangely flat and methodical as I gazed down at the soldier and saw a familiar face gazing back. Not Tristan, thank God, but someone I knew. Someone I recognized. I ignored the sickness in my gut and bent to grab his wrist. “Once St. George discovers the strike failed, after they search the area for dragons, they’ll send a team to make all this disappear. The Order doesn’t like attention any more than Talon.”

  The dragons were silent as I heaved the body over my shoulder, setting my jaw as it flopped limply. I felt them watching as I walked to the back of a truck and laid him gently on his back. His head rolled to the side, staring at me accusingly, a soldier just a couple years older than me. I let out a tired sigh.

  “I’m sorry, Edwin,” I muttered, and closed his eyes.

  “Did you know him?” asked a voice at my back. I looked over my shoulder to see Ember, back in human form and wearing her Viper suit, peering in at me from the edge of the truck. Her irises still glowed gre
en in the shadows as she hopped lightly into the bed. “Did you know any of them?”

  “Yes,” I answered simply. “A few of them are from other barracks but...” I looked back at the body, remembering a monastery far from here, the stern-eyed monks in brown robes, the faces of my fellow recruits. “His name was Edwin James,” I murmured. “I went through basic training with him.”

  “Oh, Garret.” The girl knelt at my side, placing one warm hand on my knee. “That’s... I’m so sorry.”

  “It’s all right.” I looked away from her, telling myself to be detached, to feel nothing. “It’s not him anymore. We...the Order believes that when soldiers die in battle, our souls continue on to our reward. The bodies here aren’t the people I used to know. These are just the shells they left behind.”

  Abruptly, I wondered where the rest of my classmates were. We had been sent to different chapterhouses after graduation, and I’d seen only a couple of them since that time, though never long enough for more than a hello. Peter Matthews, my old tormenter, had been stationed at the St. George Eastern Chapterhouse on the other side of the country, and I hadn’t seen or heard him since graduation. I wondered if he was still alive. And if he was, I wondered what he would say to me, if our paths ever crossed again.

  A scraping sound interrupted us. Ember and I turned to see Riley dragging one of the soldiers across the road by the ankle, before tossing him to the foot of the truck. He flopped limply, arms and legs splayed ungracefully on the pavement. The blue dragon curled his lip and turned to stalk after another. I winced, and Ember leaped down with a scowl.

  “What are you doing, Cobalt?”

  “What does it look like I’m doing?” the blue dragon shot back. Hooking a body by the armor, he clawed it out of the bushes onto the road. “Figured I’d help out, or we’ll be here forever. If you’re not too squeamish, grab a leg or something, would you? These bastards are deadweight.”

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