Soldier, p.20
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       Soldier, p.20

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  “Get out of sight,” I whispered to Ember. “Hurry. They’re changing shifts now—we don’t have a lot of time until the next—”

  The elevator dinged.

  We had just enough time to dart back and press ourselves into the wall before the elevator doors opened and a man stepped out. Dressed in a sweater-vest and slacks, he yawned, scratched the back of his head and started across the room.

  I hit him from behind, striking right below his ear, the “knockout button” in humans. His head jerked, and he collapsed into my arms without a sound. Laying him on his back, I quickly searched his pants and wallet until I found what I was looking for.

  “Got it,” I said triumphantly, pulling a key card out of a pocket, where it dangled on a stretchy cord clamped to his belt. “We’re in business. Wes, St. George, get back here now.”

  “On our way.”

  I dragged the unconscious human to the corner and dumped him carefully behind a stack of crates and totes, while Ember watched the doorway and elevator like a hawk. I heard Wes’s voice buzz in my ear, though he wasn’t speaking to me. A few minutes later, the door opened and Wes slipped quietly into the room, followed by the soldier.

  “How’d you guys get past the desk clerk a second time?” Ember wanted to know.

  Garret smiled. “I informed her that there were a couple teenagers smoking weed in the bathrooms,” he replied. “She didn’t seem very happy at the notion, though she did thank me for telling her.”

  Wes rolled his eyes. “Called him an ‘upstanding young man’ before she left, which I find hilariously ironic. Considering we’re about to break into this place and rob it blind.” He eyed the elevator like it was a tiger getting ready to pounce. “Into the belly of the beast, then?” he said with overstated cheerfulness. “Where there’s no possible way out if we’re discovered? Fabulous, who wants to go first?”

  “We go together,” I said, shrugging off the backpack as I stepped forward. “And from here on, we have to move quickly. At the bottom of the elevator is a guard station you have to pass through to get to the Vault, and the guards there are all Talon loyalists. There’ll be no sneaking around, no talking our way through, nothing like that. Once those doors open, the guards will know something is wrong. They’re not going to escort us out, inform us that we’re trespassing, or call the police. They’re going to try to kill us.” Reaching into the pack, I pulled out my gun, shoved it into the waistband of my jeans and tossed the soldier a pistol. “So you know what you have to do.”

  St. George caught the gun and racked the slide with a metallic click. “Lead the way.”

  “Wes? Cameras?”

  “They’re all on a playback loop,” the human replied. “You could dance naked in the elevator box and the guards won’t see a thing. Not that I’d recommend it. For all our sakes.”

  I glanced down at Ember, who looked troubled but determined, and lightly touched her arm. “You ready for this, Firebrand?” I murmured as her gaze flickered to mine. “You know what you have to do?”

  She nodded. “Yeah,” she said without hesitation. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

  We crowded into the elevator. It wasn’t large; St. George and I pressed into the corners and Ember made herself very small in the center. Wes stood over the panel, swiped the card through the scanner and pressed a series of numbers once it lit up.

  The doors slid shut and the elevator began to move.

  I breathed a sigh of relief. We were in. On our way to the Vault, and whatever secrets lurked in the depths of Talon’s underground. My heart pounded, and I glanced at Ember, standing quietly in the center of the box. I was putting her in danger, again. The last time we’d ventured underground into a shady facility, we almost didn’t make it out. At least this time I knew what to expect, up to a point, but everything beyond that was unpredictable and dangerous as hell.

  The elevator continued to descend for several minutes, before it slowed and came to a stop with barely a bump. In the two seconds before the doors opened, I was aware of several things at once. Wes, cringing against the panel, as far away from the door as he could get. St. George, pistol in hand, raising the gun to aim through the opening. And Ember, standing in front of the doors, muscles tensing as her eyes glowed a brilliant emerald green.

  Then the doors opened, and a ripple of energy went through the box as Ember roared and lunged through, becoming a bright red dragon as she did and sending a cone of fire roaring down the hallway. Screams rang out, followed immediately by gunfire, and everything dissolved into chaos.

  EMBER

  The final few seconds before the doors slid open, I was terrified.

  This was the part of the plan that I’d been dreading. Not the sneaking into yet another highly secure enemy base. Not having to time everything perfectly to make it through the doors and into the elevator room. Not even the knocking out of a random Talon employee and stealing his key card to get down to the Vault. That was all fine. Everyone, from Garret to Riley to Wes, knew what they were doing. Wes would be able to hack into the security system. Garret would be able to distract the clerk to let Riley and me sneak into the back. Riley would be able to get the key card, and Wes would be able to figure out the code.

  But passing the final barrier to get into the Vault—the guard station at the bottom of the elevator—was up to me. Or, at least, I had to cause a big enough distraction for the boys to take out the guards. Armed guards, who would certainly try to kill me as soon as they saw a small red dragon burst through the doorway. More fighting. More killing. I was sick to death of it all, but I knew we had to succeed here, or even more of us could die. The hallway was too narrow for two dragons to be there simultaneously, and being smaller than Cobalt, I could maneuver better in cramped spaces. Plus, Garret and Riley were better shots, and I could easily Shift between human and dragon thanks to the Viper suit. It made sense that I would go in first, but that didn’t make it less terrifying. Hopefully, the element of shock would give us enough time to eliminate the threat quickly.

  I let out a roar as I lunged through the doorway, blasting the air before me with fire, not even knowing what I was aiming for. I heard a scream, and a body lurched away, flailing wildly as flames engulfed him. Two others at the end of the hall pulled guns as I turned on them, shouting something about intruders and sounding the alarm. Gunfire boomed through the corridor, and something sparked off a chest plate, making me snarl and recoil in pain. At the same time, Garret and Riley stepped out of the elevator, guns raised. Their pistols barked, and the two guards jerked away, collapsing to the tile.

  I winced, but then Garret lunged past me, heading toward an open doorway on the side of the corridor. A large window stood beside the frame, looking out on the hall, probably the guard station where they viewed all the security footage. The soldier ducked through the frame, and a second later gunshots rang out from inside, making me wince. Garret emerged, a grim expression on his face as he joined us.

  “I don’t know if I stopped him from sounding the alarm in time,” he said, looking at Riley. “Talon could be on their way. We should move fast.”

  “Wes!” Riley snapped, glaring back at the elevator. “Get out here. The shooting has stopped so you can stop cringing now.”

  “Oh, well, pardon me for actually having the sense to get out of sight when bullets start flying through the bloody air,” Wes snarled back, coming out of the elevator tube. “I don’t have scales or armor or the testosterone God gave a gorilla, so you’re all going to have to calm your tits until it’s safe.”

  Quickly, I Shifted back to human form so I wouldn’t be so blatantly noticeable, as a bright red dragon strolling through the room would probably raise some flags. Turning from the three motionless humans on the floor, I looked at the thick metal door at the very end of the hall.

  “So, the Vault is through here, right?” I asked,
hurrying after Riley as he strode forward. Wes followed reluctantly, and Garret hovered behind us, watching our backs. “All we need to do is go in, find the evidence against the Patriarch and get out again, right?”

  Riley smiled grimly. “If only it was that easy, Firebrand,” he said, and pushed the door open.

  My eyes widened. The Vault wasn’t a bank safe or a single room with boxes of documents and filing cabinets lining the walls. It was a massive, sprawling warehouse with a ceiling that soared into darkness and dozens upon dozens of aisles spread out like an enormous maze. Boxes, chests, pallets, even a few safes were crammed together on the shelves, stacked atop each other with no space between them. Ladders were scattered through the corridors, leading up to walkways where even more shelves waited, laden with crates and containers.

  “Impressive, isn’t it?” Riley asked as I stared around the huge chamber. Between all the aisles and crates and shadows, I couldn’t even see the other side. “Welcome to one of Talon’s greatest treasure hoards,” Riley went on. “Like I said, the organization has been collecting secrets, dirty laundry and blackmail material for a long time.”

  “Jeez,” I muttered, shaking my head as I continued to look around. Talk about a needle in a haystack, in a field of haystacks, on a planet made of haystacks. “How the hell are we going to find anything in this mess?” I wondered. “It’ll take us forever.”

  “And this is why you need me,” Wes broke in, with an annoyed glance at Riley. “Though some obnoxious lizards tend to forget that without me, you blighters’d be up shit creek without a paddle. Remember that, next time you’re yelling at me to stick my head out in the middle of a bullet storm.” Riley rolled his eyes but didn’t comment, and Wes continued in a smug voice, “If you didn’t have me, finding anything in the Vault would be damn near impossible. Thankfully, Talon has caught on to the wonders of modern technology. There’ll be a master list of everything and where it’s stored in the main computer. We just have to find it before Talon gets here and all hell breaks loose again.”

  “The office is this way,” Riley said, motioning us forward along the outer wall. “Be careful, though. Those guards aren’t the only ones down here. There are at least a couple human flunkies who work in the Vault, organizing the shelves and storing new evidence.”

  “Who is in charge of this place?” Garret asked. Riley shook his head.

  “Don’t know. Never met him—he was always ‘too busy’ to see me in person. The few times I came here, a guard would call for one of his assistants, and they would take care of whatever I brought in. I never made it past the office, really. In here.”

  He turned down a hallway and ducked into a small room with a desk, a couple filing cabinets and a computer.

  “Strange that there are no guards here,” Garret mused, as Wes instantly plopped into the computer chair and jiggled the screen to life. “If this is where Talon stores all its blackmail and secret evidence, I would think it would be better protected.”

  “Not many people know about this place, even in the organization,” Riley answered. “The only reason I know about it is because I was a Basilisk. Remember, the Vault isn’t supposed to exist—it’s masquerading as a normal library. Too many armed guards going in and out can attract unwanted attention, from humans and from St. George. Talon’s first priority is secrecy at all costs.” He crossed his arms. “Besides, this wasn’t exactly a cakewalk to get into. If we didn’t have a fire-breathing dragon and a superelite hacker with us, we wouldn’t have gotten past the elevator.”

  “Still.” Garret looked out the door, his expression troubled. “This seems too easy. I feel like we’re missing something.” His eyes narrowed. “Where are the people that are supposed to work here? They must have heard the gunshots.”

  “I don’t know,” Riley said impatiently. “But we can either chase humans around a giant-ass warehouse, or we can get what we came here for and get out before Talon arrives. Take your pick. Wes?” He looked at the other human, busily clacking away at the keyboard. “How’s it coming?”

  “Hold your bloody horses,” Wes muttered, not looking up from the screen. “It’s not like I have a lot to go on...aha. There we go.”

  “Did you find anything?” I asked.

  A few more taps with the keyboard, and Wes breathed out slowly. “Bloody hell, what didn’t I find? Someone has been a very, very bad Patriarch.”

  I felt Garret go perfectly still beside me. Riley didn’t notice as he leaned in, peering over Wes’s shoulder. “What do we have?”

  “Bank statements, photographs, bloody recordings, you name it.” Wes shook his head. “Enough dirt to blackmail him for the rest of his life, and possibly his successor’s life. According to these dates...” He squinted at the screen. “This has been going on for more than a year.”

  “Perfect,” Riley breathed, though Garret didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. The soldier looked almost ill, brows drawn together and mouth set in a grim line. “Where are they?” Riley continued.

  “Aisle 147, section G-36,” Wes muttered after a short pause. “That’s all it says.”

  Riley nodded and straightened. “We’ll figure it out when we get there,” he said, heading toward the door. “Right now, we’re looking for aisle 147. Let’s find that evidence and get the hell out of here.”

  “I’ll wait here,” Wes volunteered, leaning back in the chair as Riley frowned at him. “Someone has to keep an eye on the elevator hallway,” he explained. “If Talon comes bursting through those doors, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

  “Uh-huh.” Riley raised an eyebrow. “Sure you’re not staying behind to look at all the juicy blackmail Talon has on everyone?”

  “Of course not, mate.” Wes smiled evilly. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

  “Fine, anarchist. You have fun with that.” The other sighed and turned to us. “Ember, St. George, let’s go.”

  We slipped back into the massive warehouse, following Riley through shadowy aisles and corridors, shelves overflowing with boxes, crates, containers and sometimes weird, random crap. An ancient bicycle sat on one of the shelves, handlebars bent at an odd angle. A suit jacket hung in plastic from a wire hanger, suspicious dark blots staining the collar and sleeves. A huge diamond necklace sat on a mannequin bust, dozens of jewels sparkling in the dim light. I resisted the temptation to take the shiny and kept moving.

  Through it all, the warehouse appeared eerily empty. We met no resistance, ran into no one else moving through the aisles and around corners. And maybe I was looking for problems that weren’t there, but I started to think that maybe Garret was right. Where were the other employees, those assistants that Riley had met before? They had to be here somewhere; we’d knocked out one of them when he was leaving the Vault. For that matter, where was this mysterious boss man, the one in charge of this massive place? Was he out to lunch? Or did he just stay down here forever, living below the library like a real-life Phantom of the Opera?

  “Here it is,” Riley muttered, turning down one of the long corridors. “Aisle 147. The evidence against the Patriarch should be around here...” He stopped and gazed down the aisle, staring at the boxes and containers looming twenty feet overhead. “Somewhere.”

  I looked closer at the shelves, seeing letters and numbers stickered along the edges, just like the library. “A-14,” I read, and glanced at the boys. “The shelves are numbered, too,” I called, making them turn. “That’s how we can find the evidence. What are we looking for again, Riley? G...something?”

  A low chuckle echoed out of the darkness. “G-36 is the shelf you want,” said a voice behind me, as a massive ripple of power washed into the aisle. A figure stepped into view, seeming to come from nowhere: an old man with silver hair, tiny gold glasses and a neatly trimmed beard. He folded his hands and smiled at us like a doting grandfather, as his shadow filled the narrow space and
stretched all the way to the ceiling. “The evidence on the Patriarch is all there,” the old man said, and though his voice was quiet, it seemed to vibrate through the concrete floor. “How you expect to get it past me is the problem.”

  My dragon recoiled with a hiss of terror, cringing back as two ancient, silvery-blue eyes fixed on me. For a moment, I couldn’t move, but Garret had his gun drawn in the space of a blink, bringing his weapon level with the man’s face.

  The old man smiled.

  With frightening speed, he darted in, grabbed the wrist that held the gun and wrenched it behind Garret’s back. Stunned, the soldier tried to fight, throwing an elbow back at the old man’s skull. It connected solidly with his temple, but his captor simply scowled in annoyance. A thin, wrinkled hand clamped around Garret’s throat, wrenching his head back, and the soldier gagged, gasping for air as bony fingers began to close like a vise. I let out a terrified cry and tensed to lunge.

  “Don’t kill him!”

  The old man’s gaze flicked to me again, and that massive presence froze me in my tracks. Inside, my dragon was cringing in abject, primal terror, making it hard to even look at him, but the fear that I was going to watch Garret die right in front of me was stronger. “Please,” I whispered, shaking. “Let him go. Do whatever you want to me, just let him go.”

  The old man raised a thin white eyebrow. “My dear, if I wanted to kill you, any of you, I would’ve done so already. We would not be having this conversation.” He glanced at the soldier with a frown. “However, if you keep squirming, human, I will crush your trachea right here. Please be a reasonable hostage so that we may be done with this, and I don’t have to dispose of yet another body.” Garret slumped, lowering his arm in defeat, and the old man nodded in satisfaction. The knot in my stomach loosened the tiniest bit, but I couldn’t relax until those bony fingers were away from Garret’s throat.

 
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