Soldier, p.19
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       Soldier, p.19

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  EMBER

  It took us a half hour to drag the bodies out of the road and load them into the trucks. Garret wouldn’t let Riley just toss them inside to land where they would. He carefully laid them out side by side, folding arms and laying their hands over their chests when he could. There were over a dozen of them, and the stench of blood, smoke, and charred flesh and armor burned my nose as I pulled the bodies over to the truck. My stomach churned, but I made myself continue. I had done this. I was responsible for the deaths of these humans. The least I could do was not leave them in the sun to rot.

  “Hey.” Cobalt brushed alongside me, peering down with worried golden eyes. “You okay, Firebrand?” he asked, nudging my shoulder in concern. “You’re looking a little green.”

  I flinched, even as part of me wanted to lean into him. To curl against him and bury my face in his side and forget the rest of the world. He’s your Sallith’tahn, something inside me whispered. You’re supposed to be together.

  “I’m okay,” I said, and stepped away from him. “Just...lots of dead humans. Trying not to think about it.”

  “You’re the one who wanted us to fight, Firebrand.”

  “I know!” I scowled at him a moment, then slumped. “I know.”

  “If we didn’t kill them, they would have slaughtered us. And everyone at that temple. Just for associating with dragons.”

  “Yeah,” I agreed. “But...” I glanced at the truck, where Garret was laying out the last of the bodies. “They were his friends once. He was one of them. And now, he’s fighting on our side.” A thought entered my head, one that had been plaguing me for a while now, but I hesitated in voicing out loud. “Could they...could more of them...be like him?”

  Cobalt gave a very dubious snort, so emphatic that smoke curled out of his nose. “Don’t go down that road, Ember,” he warned, making me scowl at him. “That way lies madness, and you’ll very quickly get yourself killed. The soldier is a special, and very rare, exception. I’m still trying to figure out how you actually pulled that off, because getting any of the Order to change their mind is like convincing the Elder Wyrm that money is bad. It just can’t be done.”

  “Maybe we should try.”

  He growled. “A little late, I’m afraid. After today, do you think any of St. George will want to talk to dragons?” My heart sank, and Cobalt tossed his head, gesturing at the scene before us with his horns. “Look around you, Firebrand. This was a massacre. Granted, we’re usually the ones on the other end, but the Order won’t think of it like that. You saw how they reacted when we dared sneak into their compound to rescue one soldier, and we didn’t kill anyone on our way out. What do you think they’re going to do after this? How do you think they’re going to react?”

  I swallowed hard. “There’s no right answer, is there?”

  “There never is in war.”

  Garret hopped from the truck and made his way over, his face still dark and shadowed. “That’s the last of them,” he announced. “The keys are still in the ignition. I’ll drive one truck back. Can either of you...?”

  Cobalt grimaced. “Well, I’d do it, but I’d probably stick to the leather, if you know what I mean.”

  I rolled my eyes at him. “I’ll drive,” I told Garret, who nodded without smiling, his expression still far away. “I can make it back to the monastery, at least. But, the soldiers...are you sure you’re okay with us leaving them like that?”

  He nodded. “There’s no time for anything else,” he said. “The Order will take care of them when they get here. But we need to not be here when they arrive.”

  “That gets my vote,” Cobalt said, and began trotting toward the vehicles. “I’ll ride in the back, Firebrand,” he called over his shoulder. “You probably don’t want me in the front, in either form.”

  I headed to the second truck and opened the driver’s door, taking a few seconds to brush glass off the seat before I sat down. For a moment, I wondered if the truck would even start. All the windows had been shattered, the seats blackened and charred from where Cobalt had blasted them with fire, and the hood was crumpled from having a dragon leaping atop it. The roof was completely shredded, claw marks and bullet holes raked through like it was made of aluminum foil instead of metal. There’d be no hiding what had happened here. Anyone with even the smallest knowledge of dragons would take one look at this truck and know it had been attacked by something huge that could breathe fire.

  Or multiple somethings that could breathe fire.

  Thankfully, despite the damage from talons and fire and sheer scaly weight, the truck started easily. I followed Garret carefully up the mountain road, trying not to see into the back of the vehicle in front of me. At the line of soldiers we had killed.

  The monks had gathered outside when we pulled up with the trucks, along with Jade and a very stressed-out-looking Wes. The Eastern dragon had Shifted back to human form, though she wore jeans, a jacket and boots instead of robes, signaling her intent to leave. She strode forward as the trucks pulled to a stop, looking grim and determined as Garret dropped from the front seat to meet her.

  “I’ve convinced the abbot they need to leave this place,” she told the soldier, who nodded. “St. George will be coming soon—better that a building suffer the Order’s wrath than the people who live there. They have an old van, and almost nothing to take with them, so they’re very nearly ready to go.” She paused, looking back at the cluster of orange robes, then turned back with a frown. “I am going with them.”

  Garret didn’t look surprised. “Do you plan to come back?”

  “Yes.” Jade nodded firmly. “When I’ve found them a new place to stay, when I’m sure they’re settled in and safe from any further attacks, I’ll contact you. But this is my responsibility. I won’t abandon them now, not when it’s our fault the Order is coming.”

  An ancient van, more rust than metal, trundled around the side of the building and lurched to a coughing halt at the edge of the road. The monks began piling into it and, for a moment, I wondered what people passing them on the highway would think, when they glanced over and saw a van full of bald men in orange robes peering back at them. Garret watched them a moment, then turned back to Jade.

  “Good luck,” he said. “And thanks. We’ll meet you again when you’re done.”

  She bowed to him, very slightly. Though I got the impression that small, simple gesture was huge in Eastern dragon terms. Turning, she strode to the now-full van, sagging under the weight of a dozen monks crammed into the seats, opened the passenger door and swung inside. With a cough and a sickly rumble, the vehicle rolled away down the road, the faces of the monks peering back at us through the windows. I lifted a hand, and several of them waved to me, as well. Then the van cruised over a hill, around a bend in the road, and disappeared from sight.

  Cobalt leaped gracefully out of the back and trotted up, scales gleaming in the sun, and Wes stalked forward to join us, as well.

  “Well, that was bloody exciting,” Wes growled, as the four of us stood and stared down the road after the van. Two dragons, a hacker and a soldier of St. George, thrown together once more. “Now, can we please get the hell out of here, or were you blighters planning to stick around and invite the Order to tea?”

  PART III

  COVENANT

  RILEY

  “Well, there it is,” I said. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Vault.”

  We’d made it to Chicago without further incident, fleeing the temple and the wrath of St. George that was sure to follow in its wake. For most of the ten-hour drive, we’d gone over the plan about a thousand times, poked holes in it, argued about it, played devil’s advocate and finally hammered out something that was only somewhat likely to spectacularly fail when we attempted to pull it off. We’d reached the city, rented a single room at a roach motel and caught a few hours o
f stressed, exhausted sleep before waking up that evening and going over the plan one more time. And then, here we were, on a street outside the library, getting ready to pull the biggest heist of my existence.

  “Everyone ready for this?”

  “Do we have a choice?” Wes muttered beside me. “It’s either risk certain death here if we’re caught, or risk certain death with the Order if we’re caught. Must be a Tuesday.” Ah, the eternal optimist.

  Beside me, Ember scooted forward, peering at the squat, unadorned stone building across the street. Her hand brushed my shoulder as she leaned in, and my blood heated. “Doesn’t look like much,” she observed, green eyes scanning the sidewalk and corners surrounding it. “But I guess that’s what Talon is going for.”

  “Yeah,” I rasped out. “So don’t let it fool you. This isn’t going to be easy.”

  “There’re only a few minutes until the next shift change,” St. George remarked from the back. “We need to move fast.”

  “Right,” I muttered, and shoved the earbuds in my ears, then adjusted the mic on the wire. “Can everyone hear me?” They all nodded or muttered affirmation. “Good. Stick to the plan, and remember, everyone stays in touch at all times. If this all goes horribly wrong—”

  “We’re probably dead,” Wes remarked.

  I rolled my eyes. “If things go wrong, get out and meet back at the hotel. If Talon realizes what we’re trying to do, they’ll send everything they can to stop us.” I took a quiet breath, narrowing my eyes at the building. “We only get one shot at this,” I murmured. “Let’s make it count. Wes, St. George. You’re up first.”

  With a sigh, Wes slung his laptop bag over his shoulder, opened the car door and slipped out, heading for the library across the street. After a moment, the soldier stuck a baseball cap on his head and slid the side door open. Pausing in the frame, he glanced back at Ember and me and gave a small nod.

  “Good luck,” he said, and he was actually talking to us both. “Be careful in there.”

  “You, too,” Ember replied. “See you on the other side, Garret.”

  This time, the brief smile was only for her. Stepping out, he slid the door shut behind him, hunched his shoulders and began walking toward the library with his head down and his hands in his pockets. He followed Wes up the steps and vanished through the door.

  “All right,” I muttered, leaning back and crossing my arms. “Now we just gotta wait for Wes to hack into the security system. Shouldn’t take too long. I hope. So...” I pointed the mic away from me and lowered my voice to a murmur. “Now that we’re alone, away from Wes and the soldier, and we have a few minutes to kill...you wanna tell me what’s going on, Firebrand?”

  I felt her freeze, hesitate and then stammer, “What—what do you mean?”

  “Don’t give me that.” I half turned in the seat to face her. “You’ve been avoiding me ever since we left the monastery. Whenever I try to talk to you, it’s like I have the plague. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you’re never in the same room with me alone.” I made a vague gesture at the ceiling. “I mean, hell, Firebrand, you even started a conversation with Wes, about coding, to avoid having to talk to me.” She dropped her gaze, and I frowned. “What did that Asian dragon say to you the day of the attack?” I asked, making her flinch. “Because I’m racking my brain to come up with a reason here. What did she say to make you freak out on me?”

  “Riley...” Ember looked out the window, her brow furrowed. “I can’t...tell you right now,” she murmured. “Besides, don’t we have more important things to focus on? I mean, it’s not something I can casually throw out there just before we pull off a heist.”

  “All right, fair enough.” She did have a point. “But just remember...” Reaching out, I touched her cheek, making her start and look up at me. “I won’t forget. When we’re done here, you’re going to tell me, Ember. I don’t like this keeping-secrets thing. We’re supposed to be partners. I need to know I can trust my team completely. Hiding things from each other can easily get one or all of us killed.”

  For some reason, that made her cheeks turn the color of a tomato. “Yeah,” she whispered, pulling back. “I know. I’ll tell you soon, Riley, I promise. It’s something you need to hear, just...not right now. When we’re done, I’ll explain everything.”

  “Riley,” Wes’s voice buzzed in my ear, quiet and tense. “I’m in.”

  “Copy that,” I said, turning the mic toward me once more. “We’re on our way.” Glancing at Ember, who looked relieved at the interruption, I smiled grimly. “Ready, Firebrand?”

  She nodded and pulled up the hood on her jacket, hiding her flaming hair. Grabbing my backpack, I opened the door, slung the pack to one shoulder and headed across the street with Ember beside me.

  “Approaching the front doors now,” I muttered into the mic. “We’ll pass the entrance and the front camera in about twenty seconds, Wes.”

  “Got it,” Wes replied tersely. “Starting the feedback loop...now. All right, you should be good.”

  I held my breath as we swept through the front doors, deliberately not looking at the camera I knew was hidden right above us, watching the entrance. Nothing happened, except for an oblivious teenager nearly running into me because his face was glued to his phone. I smoothly stepped around him and headed into the library. It was cool and quiet inside, with bright florescent lights, a high ceiling, and shelves of books lining the walls and marching down the floors.

  “We’re in,” I murmured as Ember and I passed the checkout desk, where a stern, white-haired librarian eyed us from behind her glasses, silently warning us not to cause trouble.

  “Wes, can you see the elevator room?”

  “I’m hacked into the security system,” Wes replied. “I can see the whole bloody library, including...oh, wait. Some bloke just came into the elevator room.”

  “Now?” I growled. “He’s early.”

  “Yeah, well, you need to get moving, because the blighter just went down the elevator. That means someone will be coming up in a couple minutes.”

  “Dammit. All right, heading to the back now. Where’s St. George?”

  “En route,” said the soldier quietly through the earbud.

  The information desk came into view, a long wooden structure with a pair of computers and one bored-looking human sitting behind it. A little to the side, in plain view of the desk, was the door we needed to get through. A large employees-only sign hung prominently to the side of the frame.

  The desk clerk hadn’t noticed us yet. Before she could, Ember and I slipped into a nearby aisle, pretending to browse but watching her through the shelves. I eyed the door to the left of the desk, the first barrier between us and the Vault.

  “Excuse me.”

  The soldier’s voice buzzed quietly in my ear. I peeked through the shelves to see the human walk up to the desk, a slip of paper in hand. The clerk raised her head and gave him an expectant look.

  “Hi,” St. George said casually. “I’m trying to find this book for class, but I’m having trouble. It’s supposed to be in aisle E-14, but I don’t see it there.”

  “What’s the title?” asked the clerk, and when he told her, she clicked her keyboard for a few seconds, staring at the computer. I tapped my foot on the floor and tried not to growl as she studied the screen. “Hmm, it says we have a copy in. Are you sure you were in the right aisle?”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  She blinked at him, perhaps surprised he’d answered so politely, then smiled. “Well, it might’ve been shelved incorrectly,” she said, and slid off her chair. “Let me see if I can find it for you.”

  “Thank you, ma’am.”

  He stepped back and followed her away from the desk, toward the front of the library, where he had deliberately chosen an aisle as far from the information desk as possible. I
waited until they had vanished, then stepped away from the shelves.

  “Wes. Now.”

  “Roger that. Starting the playback loop again.” A heartbeat of silence, and then, “Live feed is dead. Anyone watching is seeing a recording. You’re clear.”

  “Let’s go, Firebrand.”

  We hurried from the aisle, passed the desk and hit the door without breaking stride, slipping through into the hallway beyond. The door closed behind us with a squeak and a soft click, but we couldn’t relax just yet. Our window was closing fast.

  Quickly, we moved down the short, plain corridor, passing a break room with a table and a couple vending machines, until we came to the last door at the very end. This one was definitely locked, with a numbered keypad that glowed green as we came up. “Wes,” I growled, feeling highly exposed in the short, brightly lit hallway. “Door’s locked.”

  “Working on it,” was the terse reply, just as a faint beep sounded from the door handle. “Okay. You’re clear.”

  We entered, and I looked around a small dark room. It was filled with gray totes, wheeled carts and books, some piles stacked halfway to the ceiling. A musty smell lingered in the air.

  Across from us, a pair of elevator doors stood against the far wall. They were old and gray, paint peeling off in narrow strips, and they sent a stab of recognition through me. I’d seen them before, many years ago, when I came through this very room. The ancient, faded sign beside the doors read Storage, with an arrow pointing down, which I found as ironic as I had the day I first came through. “Storage” didn’t quite cover what was really hidden down there.

  I took a deep breath. Here was where things got complicated. We couldn’t just press a button and be taken down to the Vault. That would be far too easy, and Talon was way too paranoid for such lax security. The elevator required not only a key card to make it work, but a numeric code to get past the basement and, from what I knew of Talon, it probably changed every couple weeks. I hoped Wes had been watching the last person to use the elevator closely. I also hoped he had hacked the camera that was inside the elevator, otherwise this was going to be a very short mission.

 
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